Tuesday, 21 October 2014

‘Cleansing the stock’ and other ways governments talk about human beings

Those in power don’t speak of ‘people’ or ‘killing’ – it helps them do their job. And we are picking up their dehumanising euphemisms
Israeli attack on Gaza school
An Israeli strike on a UN school in the northern Gaza Strip in which two children were killed and a dozen other people were injured. 'Mowing the lawn'? Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

To blot people out of existence first you must blot them from your mind. Then you can persuade yourself that what you are doing is moral and necessary. Today this isn’t difficult. Those who act without compassion can draw upon a system of thought and language whose purpose is to shield them – and blind us – to the consequences.
The contention by Lord Freud, a minister in the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions, that disabled people are “not worth the full wage” isn’t the worst thing he’s alleged to have said. I say “alleged” because what my ears tell me is contested by Hansard, the official parliamentary record. During a debate in the House of Lords, he appeared to describe the changing number of disabled people likely to receive the employment and support allowance as a “bulge of, effectively, stock”. After a furious response by the people he was talking about, this was transcribed by Hansard as“stopped”, rendering the sentence meaningless. I’ve listened to the word several times on the parliamentary video. Like others, I struggle to hear it as anything but “stock”.
If we’re right, he is not the only person at his department who uses this term. Its website describes disabled people entering the government’s work programme for between three and six months as “3/6Mth stock”. Perhaps this makes sense when you remember that they are a source of profit for the companies running the programme. The department’s delivery plan recommends using “credit reference agency data to cleanse the stock of fraud and error”. To cleanse the stock: remember that.
Human beings – by which I mean those anthropoid creatures who do not necessarily receive social security – often live in families. But benefit claimants live in “benefit units”, defined by the government as “an adult plus their spouse (if applicable) plus any dependent children living in the household”. On the bright side, if you die while on a government work programme, you’ll be officially declared a “completer”. Which must be a relief.
A dehumanising system requires a dehumanising language. So familiar and pervasive has this language become that it has soaked almost unnoticed into our lives. Those who do have jobs are also described by the function they deliver to capital. These days they are widely known as “human resources”.
The living world is discussed in similar terms. Nature is “natural capital”. Ecological processes are ecosystem services, because their only purpose is to serve us. Hills, forests and rivers are described in government reports as “green infrastructure”. Wildlife and habitats are “asset classes” in an “ecosystems market”. Fish populations are invariably described as “stocks”, as if they exist only as movable assets from which wealth can be extracted – like disabled recipients of social security. The linguistic downgrading of human life and the natural world fuses in a word a Norwegian health trust used to characterise the patients on its waiting list: biomass.
Those who kill for a living employ similar terms. Israeli military commanders described the massacre of 2,100 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians (including 500 children), in Gaza this summer as “mowing the lawn”. It’s not original. Seeking to justify Barack Obama’s drone war in Pakistan (which has so far killed 2,300 people, only 4% of whom have since been named as members of al-Qaida), Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser Bruce Riedel explained that “you’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.” The director of the CIA, John Brennan, claimed that with “surgical precision” his drones “eliminate the cancerous tumour called an al-Qaida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it”. Those who operate the drones describe their victims as bug splats.
During its attack on the Iraqi city of Falluja in November 2004, the US army used white phosphorus to kill or maim people taking shelter in houses or trenches. White phosphorus is fat-soluble. Even small crumbs of it bore through living tissue on contact. It destroys mucous membranes, blinding people and ripping up their lungs. Its use as a weapon is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, as the US army knows: one of its battle books observes that “it is against the law of land warfare to employ WP against personnel targets” (personnel targets, by the way, are human beings). But never mind all that. The army has developed a technique it calls Shake ‘n Bake: flush people out with phosphorus, then kill them with high explosives. Shake ‘n Bake is a product made by Kraft Foods for coating meat with breadcrumbs before cooking it.
Terms such as these are designed to replace mental images of death and mutilation with images of something else. Others, such as “collateral damage” (dead or wounded civilians), “kinetic activity” (shooting and bombing), “compounds” (homes) and “extraordinary rendition” (kidnapping and torture by states), are intended to prevent the formation of any mental pictures at all. If you can’t see what is being discussed, you will struggle to grasp the implications. The clearest example is “neutralising”, which neutralises the act of killing it describes.
I doubt many people could kill and wound if their language accurately represented what they were doing. It is notable that those who are most enthusiastic about waging war are the least able to describe what they are talking about without resorting to metaphor and euphemism. Few people have nightmares about squashing insects or mowing the lawn.
The media, instead of challenging public figures to say kill when they mean kill, and people when they mean people, repeats these evasions. Uncontested, their sanitised, trivialised, belittling terms seep into our own mouths, until we also talk about “operatives” or “human capital” or “illegal aliens” without stopping to consider how those words resonate and what they permit us not to see. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are dehumanising metaphors in this article that I have failed to spot.
If we wish to reclaim public life from the small number of people who have captured it, we must also reclaim the language in which it is expressed. To know what we are talking about: this, in more than one sense, is the task of those who want a better world.

A mutiny by World Bank staff when prescribed a dose of its own restructuring medicine

The recommendations of the World Bank/IMF are presented to us, the people of the South, as scientific, objective, necessary, fair, and in the best interests of the countries where they are to be implemented. This is why the rebellion episode by the bank staff to its restructuring is so significant


In the Financial Times of October 8, the columnist Shawn Donnan, reported that the World Bank was facing an internal “‘mutiny.” Yes, the word mutiny was used. The professional staff were apparently angry about several issues, a deep discontent, because of which the rebellion had been brewing over many days. The key issue was the restructuring exercise being undertaken by the President, Jim Yong Kim, to save, through both the elimination of benefits to staff on mission and also through possible lay-offs, the sum of $400 million. The restructuring exercise, staff felt, was deeply flawed both procedurally and substantively. The columnist reported some members saying that this “thing [restructuring] is affecting everything.” “We can’t do business. We don’t have the budget. It’s a mess, ...” Another staff member complained that “nickel and diming” on travel budgets was causing travelling staff to have to pay for their own breakfasts. “It’s really small beer,” she said. “Has anyone ever thought about the impact of these changes on staff morale?”
Resistance against restructuring

To assuage their feelings, before the semi-annual meeting of the Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) with Finance Ministers and Central Bankers of member countries, President Jim Yong Kim had to hurriedly convene a “town hall” meeting with the staff to discuss their concerns. The issues that was fuelling their anger were: (i) the cost-cutting exercise which meant that items of expenditure that they had been accustomed to, such as a paid for breakfast, were being withdrawn, (ii) the secrecy and opacity of the whole exercise i.e., appointment of consultants, payment of bonus to the senior management, hiring of new senior managers, etc, (iii) the award of a “scarce skills premium” of $94,000 as bonus, over and above his salary of $3,79,000, to the Chief Financial Officer who was carrying out the exercise, and (iv) to the appointment and payment of the huge sum of $12.5 million to external consultants such as McKinsey, Deloitte, and Booz Allen for advice on how to restructure a development Bank, as reported in the Economic Times of October 15, 2014.
For those of us from the Global South, who not only receive but also have to follow the advice of the Bretton Woods twins, on how to “restructure” our economies and change our policies, this episode has four very interesting lessons. The recommendations of the World Bank/IMF are presented to us, the people of the South, as scientific, objective, necessary, fair, and in the best interests of the countries where they are to be implemented. The World Bank is the repository of the most authoritative knowledge on development. It annually publishes the flagship World Development Report (WDR), the first of which in 1978 was titled “Prospects for Growth and Alleviation of Poverty.” Every year since 1978, it flags important themes for development with the 2013 WDR being on “Jobs” and restructuring required to align them with the new economy. The 2015 WDR is on “Mind and Culture” and the World Bank website reports the central argument as being “that policy design that takes into account psychological and cultural factors will achieve development goals faster.” This is scholarly knowledge and is used by many university classrooms as part of required reading. This is what positions the World Bank as a premier knowledge institution on development. Then why is the rebellion episode so significant? There are four aspects of that which merit discussion.
The first is the resistance against the restructuring medicine. This is the same medicine used by the World Bank against the rest of the world. The restructuring exercise, which has eliminated jobs within the public sector, whether this be in government or in the support services required by any public institution, such as of subordinate administrative staff, has produced an underclass of workers, who, although they are still needed, have been deprived of the welfare and security benefits that the permanent staff enjoys and were benefits that had been won by a long history of working class struggles. So, when security guards, drivers, mess workers, sweepers, the class IV workers, have now to live lives filled with anxiety about illness, unemployment, etc., because they work for labour contractors who do not provide any such benefits, the anger of the World Bank professional staff who, because of the restructuring, have to pay for their “breakfast” is a little difficult to understand. The restructuring exercise of economies in the global south has produced an underclass whose livelihood insecurity has increased exponentially. The mutiny at the World Bank appears somewhat paradoxical. Not only is the exercise personally dishonest, given the rebellion when the policy is applied at home, but it is also intellectually dishonest when read against the 2015 WDR. Is this the modern performance of the “mutiny on the bounty”?
Control by the few

The second aspect is the process adopted in the internal restructuring. The Reuters and FT reports tell us that the common complaint of the staff is that the many aspects of the restructuring exercise, initiated by the president, were non-transparent. There was an opacity to the process. For example, questions such as the following needed to be asked. What was the method followed to give the CFO a “scarce skills premium” of $94,000 over and above his salary? Was the work done outside the normal duty of the CFO? How did the president decide on who qualifies for a “scarce skills premium” and how many persons have qualified for this bonus? These were questions asked at the town hall meeting. If the “scarce skills premium” was based on sound management principles, why did the CFO agree to forego the bonus after the uproar? These are good questions and lead one to wonder if countries have the same option of protesting? Did Greece and Portugal and Ireland and Argentina have the protest option? The interesting lesson from this episode is that restructuring produces pain and distress to the many while it rewards the few especially those tasked with implementing it. These few have access to political and intellectual power. They control the methods adopted of public justification which produces a discourse that the restructuring is necessary and will benefit the whole. The few get rewarded while the many pay the price in the restructuring in many countries of the global south.
Neo-liberal triumph
The third aspect is the use of consultants. This is the most disappointing and alarming aspect of the episode. For an institution such as the World Bank, whose main rationale is that it is a knowledge institution about how to promote development, to now implicitly declare that it does not have the knowledge required to restructure itself is a severe admission of the weakness of its knowledge base and skill sets. How does it then prepare a road map to restructure economies when restructuring an institution is infinitely easier than restructuring the economy of a country? Restructuring an institution can draw on the interdisciplinary knowledge of the WDR 2015 such as best practice, graduated approaches, evidenced-based policies, results-based management, measuring and monitoring, etc. (all the keywords of the World Bank itself), to achieve the result of a better, leaner, more efficient, and fair institution. But the decision to hire outside consultants, paying a whopping fee of $12.5 million, shows that the World Bank does not either believe in its own capability, or worse doesn’t have this capability. What is alarming is the message that development thinking will, from now on, be done and propagated by the big global consultancies. Is the World Bank announcing that henceforth even its development knowledge will be outsourced? As reported in the Economic Times, one of the protesters said, “What do they know about development and the complexities of what we do?” Indeed, what do they know? But if we see the economic policy institutions of many countries, we will see a seamless movement of personnel between global consultancies and central banks. Our own development thinking has been outsourced to neo-liberal knowledge institutions, such as global consultancies, ratings agencies and investment banks. We can see this takeover of knowledge production in the area of economic policy, the triumph of the neo-liberal frame, even in India. Look at the key players of our economic policymaking. The World Bank has now given its stamp of approval to this trend. The recolonisation of the Indian mind and the policy discourse is near complete.
The fourth aspect of this troubling episode is the use of words to legitimise the action. In the last few months of the Indian public debate, we have come to see the power of words and the social power the purveyors of these words acquire. The word makes the world. Tagore argued for this philosophical position that language constructs reality, that we see the beauty of the world through our language, and that outside language there is no beauty. Controlling the word, the Bank decides to reward its CFO with a large bonus, while it is reducing the financial package of its other employees; it deploys the justification for this decision as a “scare skills premium.” The CFO gets the additional money because he has scarce skills. The investment Bank fraternity has to be rewarded with huge bonuses because they have scarce skills. Wall Street is built on this justification. This is capitalism’s masterstroke of controlling perception, controlling the public discourse by controlling words. We accept the differentials because we are made to believe it is a “scarce skills premium” to be paid for our own good. Sometimes a typographical error brings out the truth much better. By mistake I typed it as “scare skills premium.” It is.

Cricket: complex, unknowable cricket

 Jon Hotten in Cricinfo

Old Trafford 2005: one in a scarcely imaginable run of four matches carved from gold © Getty Images
This is Martin Amis, writing about chess: "Nowhere in sport, perhaps nowhere in human activity, is the gap between the trier and the expert so astronomical."
Is he right? In the field of human activity, at least, I can think of another arena in which the knowledge gap between amateur and pro is vast - that of theoretical physics. The latest man to try and bridge it is the particle physicist and former keyboard player with D:Ream (best-known hit - "Things Can Only Get Better"), Dr Brian Cox. 
He has a new TV series called The Human Universe, and he kicked it off with an interesting analogy for beginning to understand exactly what theoretical physicists are on about.
"Cricket" he began, is "unfathomable" to those who don't understand it, yet "bewitching" to those that do. "And all of [cricket's] complexity emerged from a fixed set of rules."
He held up the single page of a scorebook on which he'd written down the formula for the Standard Model of Particle Physics and the Theory of Relativity, and then flicked through a copy of the Laws of Cricket. "By this notation at least," he said, "cricket is more complex than the universe."
Maybe that's because Einstein never bothered with an equation to sum the Laws up, yet it's a clever way of illustrating that an understanding of the rules of anything doesn't necessarily lead to an understanding of the subject that those rules govern. To return to chess and Martin Amis, here he is on a match between Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short: "They are trying to hold on to, to brighten and to bring to blossom, a coherent vision which the arrangement of the pieces may or may not contain."
Cricket and chess are superficially simple. Sit someone in front of a chess board and you can explain the basics of the pieces and the moves in a few minutes. Show them a cricket bat and ball and a set of stumps and the idea and aims of the game become apparent. Where the genius lies - and where Cox's analogy holds quite nicely - is in the infinite small variations that these simple structures contain. The complexities mount when the knowledge and ability of the players grows: as Amis said, they are trying to bring about a vision from within the rules that isn't actually there until it happens.
This is obvious in cricket, where the game is built around endless repetitions of the same actions - the ball is bowled, the ball is hit (or not) - which, under different conditions and with various personnel, become increasingly complex as they happen again and again until stories emerge from within them.
The other day I watched a rerun of the 2005 Ashes. Once again, it gripped. Of the 1778 Test marches played before the ones in those series, along came, at random, four in a row that finished in teeth-grinding tension. Taking a wider view, they were barely different from all of the other games of cricket in history: it was simply the appearance of these very tiny complexities, one after the other, that made them what they were.
Sometimes we can feel these patterns emerging, at others we're simply too close to make them out. The brilliance of the design of the game provides a framework that stretches off into the future. We, as players and spectators, are finite, but cricket itself is universal.
Martin Amis was fascinated by chess because he felt it was "unmasterable", and it was, by any individual. "It is a game that's beyond the scope of the human mind," he wrote. And yet the human mind has devised computer programs that are able to analyse any game and beat any player. Theoretically at least, machines have reached "the end" of chess.
Despite the obsession with stats, that fate can't really await cricket. It may not be quite as complex and unknowable as deep space, but it needs a bigger book of Laws. What an invention it is.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Why did Britain’s political class buy into the Tories’ economic fairytale?

Falling wages, savage cuts and sham employment expose the recovery as bogus. Without a new vision we’re heading for social conflict

Demonstrators protesting about austerity in London
Demonstrators among tens of thousands who protested about austerity in London on Saturday. Photograph: Mary Turner/Getty Images

The UK economy has been in difficulty since the 2008 financial crisis. Tough spending decisions have been needed to put it on the path to recovery because of the huge budget deficit left behind by the last irresponsible Labour government, showering its supporters with social benefit spending. Thanks to the coalition holding its nerve amid the clamour against cuts, the economy has finally recovered. True, wages have yet to make up the lost ground, but it is at least a “job-rich” recovery, allowing people to stand on their own feet rather than relying on state handouts.
That is the Conservative party’s narrative on the UK economy, and a large proportion of the British voting public has bought into it. They say they trust the Conservatives more than Labour by a big margin when it comes to economic management. And it’s not just the voting public. Even the Labour party has come to subscribe to this narrative and tried to match, if not outdo, the Conservatives in pledging continued austerity. The trouble is that when you hold it up to the light this narrative is so full of holes it looks like a piece of Swiss cheese.
First, let’s look at the origins of the deficit. Contrary to the Conservative portrayal of it as a spendthrift party, Labour kept the budget in balance averaged over its first six years in office between 1997 and 2002. Between 2003 and 2007 the deficit rose, but at 3.2% of GDP a year it was manageable.
More importantly, this rise in the deficit between 2003 and 2007 was not due to increased welfare spending. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, social benefit spending as a proportion of GDP was more or less constant at about 9.5% of GDP a year during this period. The dramatic climb in budget deficit from there to the average of 10.7% in 2009-2010 was mostly a consequence of the recession caused by the financial crisis.
First, the recession reduced government revenue by the equivalent of 2.4% of GDP – from 42.1% to 39.7% – between 2008 and 2009-10. Second, it raised social spending (social benefit plus health spending). Economic downturn automatically increases spending on many social benefits, such as unemployment benefit and income support, but it also increases spending on things like disability benefit and healthcare, as increased unemployment and poverty lead to more physical and mental health problems. In 2009-10, at the height of the recession, UK public social spending rose by the equivalent of 3.2% of GDP compared with its 2008 level (from 21.8% to 24%).
When you add together the recession-triggered fall in tax revenue and rise in social spending, they amount to 5.6% of GDP – almost the same as the rise in the deficit between 2008 and 2009-10 (5.7% of GDP). Even though some of the rise in social spending was due to factors other than the recession, such as an ageing population, it would be safe to say that much of the rise in deficit can be explained by the recession itself, rather than Labour’s economic mismanagement.
When faced with this, supporters of the Tory narrative would say, “OK, but however it was caused, we had to control the deficit because we can’t live beyond our means and accumulate debt”. This is a pre-modern, quasi-religious view of debt. Whether debt is a bad thing or not depends on what the money is used for. After all, the coalition has made students run up huge debts for their university education on the grounds that their heightened earning power will make them better off even after they pay back their loans.
The same reasoning should be applied to government debt. For example, when private sector demand collapses, as in the 2008 crisis, the government “living beyond its means” in the short run may actually reduce public debt faster in the long run, by speeding up economic recovery and thereby more quickly raising tax revenues and lowering social spending. If the increased government debt is accounted for by spending on projects that raise productivity – infrastructure, R&D, training and early learning programmes for disadvantaged children – the reduction in public debt in the long run will be even larger.
Against this, the advocates of the Conservative narrative may retort that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that the recovery is the best proof that the government’s economic strategy has worked. But has the UK economy really fully recovered? We keep hearing that national income is higher than at the pre-crisis peak of the first quarter of 2008. However, in the meantime the population has grown by 3.5 million (from 60.5 million to 64 million), and in per capita terms UK income is still 3.4% less than it was six years ago. And this is even before we talk about the highly uneven nature of the recovery, in which real wages have fallen by 10% while people at the top have increased their shares of wealth.
But can we not at least say that the recovery has been “jobs-rich”, creating 1.8m positions between 2011 and 2014? The trouble with this is that, apart from the fact that the current unemployment rate of 6% is nothing to be proud of, many of the newly created jobs are of very poor quality.
The ranks of workers in “time-related unemployment”, doing fewer hours than they wish due to a lack of availability of work – have swollen dramatically. Between 1998 and 2005, only about 1.9% of workers were in such a position; by 2012-13 the figure was 8%.
Then there is the extraordinary increase in self-employment. Its share of total employment, whose historical norm (1984-2007) was 12.6%, now stands at an unprecedented 15%. With no evidence of a sudden burst of entrepreneurial energy among Britons, we may conclude that many are in self-employment out of necessity or even desperation. Even though surveys show that most newly self-employed people say it is their preference, the fact that these workers have experienced a far greater collapse in earnings than employees – 20% against 6% between 2006-07 and 2011-12, according to the Resolution Foundation – suggests that they have few alternatives, not that they are budding entrepreneurs going places.
So, in between the people in underemployment (6.1% of employment) and the precarious newly self-employed (2.4%), 8.5% of British people in work (or 2.6 million people) are in jobs that do not fully utilise their abilities – call that semi-unemployment, if you will.
The success of the Conservative economic narrative has allowed the coalition to pursue a destructive and unfair economic strategy, which has generated only a bogus recovery largely based on government-fuelled asset bubbles in real estate and finance, with stagnant productivity, falling wages, millions of people in precarious jobs, and savage welfare cuts.
The country is in desperate need of a counter narrative that shifts the terms of debate. A government budget should be understood not just in terms of bookkeeping but also of demand management, national cohesion and productivity growth. Jobs and wages should not be seen simply as a matter of people being “worth” (or not) what they get, but of better utilising human potential and of providing decent and dignified livelihoods. Ways have to be found to generate economic growth based on rising productivity rather than the continuous blowing of asset bubbles.
Without a new economic vision incorporating these dimensions, Britain will continue on its path of stagnation, financial instability and social conflict.