Friday, October 5, 2012

Dialogue: Ethos

I've been visiting my parents. I was talking to my father about his long experience in a private school linked to one of the major Protestant mainline denominations. G is fed up trying to make people work together, I say. I remember you often said what was most important about any school was its ethos, I say, and it's very difficult to provide a good education without one?

Yes, he says. It's very much how you tell a good school from a bad one.

How do you achieve a good ethos?

Well, he says, it takes generations to achieve. It isn't something you can do quickly. But I think much of it comes down to having a clear sense of what you are aiming at, a sense of purpose. In fact, I think that is much easier when you have a religious affiliation for the school. It somehow makes having a clear aim and context more obvious. That is where many of the public, state schools have difficulty, because they can't really find that sense of purpose.

That's interesting, I say. Pubic schools have to be much more neutral.

Yes, he says. You need some kind of aim or purpose, otherwise people can get completely self-interested. They end up only interested in it for the money, or are just going through the motions. You need to have something beyond immediate self-interest that people will engage with.

I think it's more than just education where you see this, I say. Take finance. Focusing just on money hasn't worked out well even in money management, brokerage and so on. There used to be much more emphasis on keeping one's word, character, or duty towards the client. One of the underlying reasons for the crisis is we drifted away from that. I think we've placed such emphasis on neutrality and impartiality in public life that we've lost a sense of purpose, or ethos. If the ethical side has gone off the rails, nothing in the economics is going to work properly.

Yes, he says. Sounds like something you should write a book about.

Later in the day, I ask, if a school is drifting, how do you fix it? Let's say you don't have generations to build up the ethos but have to try to improve things now? How do you get people to behave better and cooperate with each other? You need to put in a new head, he says. A new leader with a new broom to clear things out. It has to be someone who doesn't care if they're popular, who are going to make sure that things are going to change. You need the right person to do that. There can be a lot of inertia and resistance, from the staff, from the students too who don't like tighter rules and expectations.

But what do they actually do, I say? What do they clean out?

You tighten things up, he says. You start with the staff, and make sure timekeeping and reporting are good. You make sure students wear their clothes or uniforms properly. You make sure classes start on time and kids are doing their homework. You'll almost certainly get resistance. People don't like change. Some of the staff will have got lazy and may leave. So you get the small things right, as if someone cares about maintaining standards. And then it's a matter of expectations. Every student, every single one is expected to do as well as they can. Not all may be academic, but all can be expected to do as well as their potential. That kind of solid expectation matters.

Interesting, I say. It's probably why even the military spend so much time initially on observation of spit and polish. Yes, probably, even if its very different, he says. Just making sure little things are tighter tends to change the atmosphere and how people behave. Otherwise people get slack and lazy.

I think organizations have a natural life cycle, I say. Bureaucracy and time-serving and risk-aversion gradually build up. Yes, he says, you can even see it in things like churches, where you may get a wave of renewal. But then the next generation comes along that doesn't feel it and it all becomes routine and taken for granted. You need occasional waves of renewal.

What happens, though, I say, if problems in a school or other organization are really entrenched and you don't have the ability or tools to change people? Shut it down, he says immediately. Sometimes that's all you can do, things get so entrenched there's no way forward and you are much better off starting fresh all over again.

It's a simplistic question, I say, but why do some people more than others resist improvement or change? They get used to the routine and don't like change? Laziness, often, he says. I don't know why. Perhaps they forget why they went into a career or organization in the first place. Routine makes them forget. Some people just want security and don't want any risk or standards or change. I suppose at some level it is just personality. Some people really are just lazy.


The Presidential Debates

I've been traveling, so I haven't had a chance to watch the Presidential debate in full. But it is of course difficult to escape all the press stories that it was a triumph for Romney and a catastrophe for Obama.

I think that's probably an exaggerated short-term media narrative, just more of the day-to-day horse race coverage that lowers the whole debate.

It's the nature of things that there's always a certain reversion to mean, even if it is just for a few media cycles. Public sentiment can be fickle. Perhaps the best way to see it is that if you're persistent and hang in there, as Romney has been doing amidst plenty of criticism, things may turn around your way. Obama seemed to get complacent, and so gave Romney more of a chance to look presidential material.

Maybe it will indeed turn out to be a decisive turning point that wins the election for Romney. But, as British Prime Minister Harold WIlson once said, a week is a long time in politics. Things have flipped around a lot this week. But the race is probably still pretty close. All that has changed is the media have now decided that Romney may have a genuine chance.

Are Games Useful?

I talked about usefulness in the last post. Separately, I am also still thinking through the idea that games are by definition frivolous, and that they have no real purpose outside themselves, which is a major argument in Suit's book.

I just don't think that is true. Suits is wrong about this. Games do not just pass the time, but can thrill and stimulate, and help people develop skills and health and insight. There is a connection between games and purpose, which is why the point is so important.

I an writing this on a plane. I wonder if airline 757 simulators count as a game, for example? They are not a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles, in Suits' definition. They are a professionally essential sharpening of skills, and the obstacles are necessary to do that. But it is not reality either. A simulator is an abstraction from reality, a little like a well-written drama.

Role-playing is also a game, in a sense - a point which Suits has difficulty with. Drama and stories are also one step away from reality, but something

Can a game provide something that people do consider useful? The "lusory goal" can be less important than the indirect consequences of the game, especially improving skills and judgment.

Allegedly the British Empire (or at least the Battle of Waterloo) "was won the playing fields of Eton", which seems like a major real world consequence if it is only even a little true. Certainly most militaries play "war games" and exercises and general staff drills in any case.

And is the Olympic Games just games with no larger significance? Why do cities fight to spend $10 billion to host them?

Bill Shankley of Liverpool Football Club in England once said "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." There are hundreds of thouands of fans who would agree with that.

I've been reading Johan's Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, which I'll say more about in a few days. He talks about how deep the competitive instinct, or the agonistic instinct as he calls it, runs in people in culture. He also frames the discussion in terms of play, which perhaps runs wider than games.

Games, I think, can be significant in that they can be intimately related to things people care about, like status and winning and belonging and stimulation and entertainment. They can also be very important in displacing other things. Better to compete on a football pitch than a battlefield. And they overlap with other important concepts, like drama, simulation, role-playing, play, competition, winning and ambition. They are also strangely wrapped up with virtue, and testing and display of virtue.

Indeed, they can almost be a moral system in themselves, such as when an Englishman (or Indian or Australian) says "that's not cricket."

Perhaps there is a more general point. There is a standard piece of ancient folk wisdom which says you don't achieve happiness by aiming directly at it. It comes as a side-effect of other things. In that sense games can be most important not in terms of their primary lusory goals, but the indirect side-effects and consequences, the extra-lusory indirect goals, such as enjoyment, stimulation, learning... and happiness and flourishing.

Games are useful beyond the lusory goal. The extra-lusory effects matter, and indeed could be central to society. The games we choose to play say a lot about us.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dialogue: What is useful?

I've been thinking about that book you had mentioned by Bernard Suits that I read the other week, I tell G.

Suits imagined utopia could not last, because people would tire of abundance and absorbing games. They'd lose interest in the harmonious relations and lack of conflict for their own sake. They would want to be useful. He argues people would eventually come to value a laboriously hand-assembled hovel which leaked, for example, far more than a vastly better free palace, because people would feel some usefulness in building the hovel rather than having a house automatically provided.

So then: what is useful, do you think, exactly?

Well, she says, it's the feeling that things are consequential. They count for something. People want to believe what they do counts.

Counts for what, I say? I had thought about this before, I continue, and decided it's an easy answer when there's scarcity or danger. It counts when you put food on the table or a guard at the gate to help you and your village survive. But if survival or material goods aren't a problem, what is useful?

She pauses for a few seconds and thinks.

I suppose, she says, it has to relate to what being a human being is for, or what it is our nature to do. I guess it does come back to the Greek stuff you talk about - realizing potential, or doing what is your nature to do. I do think Suits is right. If everything is harmonious, people will still want things to count for something.

What more can we say about this? The standard answer in economics is that what is useful is simply what people are prepared to pay for - their revealed preference. To ask any more is to indulge in dubious metaphysics.

But that can't be right. There's a famous question in contemporary philosophy, posed by Robert Nozick (which I talked about before here) - the experience machine. You sit inside and close the door and attach the electrodes. The machine gives you the perfect illusion of living the perfect life. You can be fabulously wealthy and successful and admired. You can win the Oscar and the Nobel Prize for Physics and outdo Shakespeare, so that you can live entire lives of perfect bliss.

Would you ever pull the plug in favor of living your own real life instead? How much does authenticity or growth or striving or development matter?

It is very hard to define useful without it being useful for a particular purpose. In a sense, Suits is saying utopia would shrivel from purposelessness. I say our economy has become sufficiently abundant, sufficiently developed beyond material scarcity, that we are increasingly confused about what is useful. And that is because we have lost any vitality in discussions of purpose. We have a real problem in figuring out what is useful because we can't talk properly about purpose. Politics and economics have ignored that for three generations.

Let's imagine, I say to G, that someone retires at 65 after a successful career with Procter and Gamble. He made Tide detergent slightly better and increased market share. Is that useful? We'd have to say in general social terms it would be, at present. After all, if we defined "useful" as changing the world, almost no one can do that in any but the smallest and most local of ways.

Yes, says G, that's probably true. Probably.

Maybe being useful is simply making the world a better place, making a small contribution. But how do we measure that? And do we really honor or reward it?

We can't even ask the question properly without some ethical dimension. And our public ethical discussions are crippled by trying to be neutral and impartial and ignore ends altogether.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Dialogue: People won't behave.....

"The fact is, people just suck", says G. "They won't talk to each other, they won't co-operate or behave well. You're saying that the key problem isn't so much the economy as getting people to behave better. But is that ever going to happen? Isn't that way too big a problem for us ever to solve?" G is fed up after a long day at the office trying to get people to behave well and not piroutte like prima donnas.

Sure, it's a major problem, I say. But that's why we've evolved institutions to help people behave better and have checks and balances when they don't. Take the police, for example. There wasn't really a police force until about two hundred years ago. If you wanted justice if someone hit you, you probably had to go round up some cousins and some pitchforks before you could have anything done about it. That kind of institutional innovation can help.

And at least if we recognize that's the problem, that's a step forward, I say.

I've been thinking about what G said. We've evolved a public morality which has lots of quite thin and abstract universal rules - pay your taxes (to some extent), be tolerant, be polite to customers - but hardly any emphasis on how people behave in most situations. People cheat on their spouses, act like assholes to their employees, drive sharp bargains against the less well-informed, or become obsessive or self-absorbed. And society has remarkably little to say about that.

The older idea of being a "gentleman", for example, seems laughably obsolete. But that should tell us something. There was at least a moral code of behavior attached to that idea, even if it was often observed in the breach.

It wasn't just being polite at the dinner table, either. Some historians of the City of London, like Cain & Hopkins in British Imperialism: 1688-2000 (2nd Edition), describe its development in terms of 'gentlemanly capitalism." It was almost a cliche that deals could be done on "my word is my bond' and a handshake. JP Morgan said that what mattered more than anything else in striking a deal for him was character.

Of course, that was much easier in a small and rather exclusionary world which shared background and neighborhoods and clubs, and in which reputation and ostracism counted for something.

On the downside, it was stuffy. On the upside, it didn't need as much litigation and strict-rulemaking.

Such reliance on social control can go badly wrong sometimes. The British used to celebrate their permissive, "principles-based" accounting and regulatory system, which let the City of London become flexible and innovative, as against the "rules-based" American approach, where armies of lawyers pored over detailed SEC and CFTC and OCC regulations and rules mattered very much.

The British approach did not distinguish itself in the crisis. Apparently gentlemen were no longer behaving like gentlemen.

The question might be why. More generally, how do you ever get people to work constructively together?

That's one of the deeper questions of leadership and management, of course, and the difference between success and failure or most organizations . Some of it has to do with the dynamics of groups. Small groups can come to know and trust each other - a platoon that has gone though a battle and relied on each other, for example. Aganst that, sometimes small groups can also turn into their own claustrophobic war zone).

Other factors matter. Over time, strong cultures can support innovation and development and revenues. Leaders often ask people to look for a higher purpose or cause, such as the nation or the common good or the pride of the team, or beating the company down the street.

Often religions provide a moral code, or a particular social class will evolve some form of ethical constraints.

But none of this applies in our abstract secularized universalized rules-based morality for society as a whole, though. What higher purpose? What close team? What sense of common pride? What sense of virtue? We stress impersonal rules.

We have a strange reverse ethics, in a way. There is surprisingly little social sanction for mistreating your spouse or kids - cheating on your wife or abandoning your kids in a divorce. For the closest relationships in our lives, that is remarkable. But there is very strident social demands for abstract qualities like "tolerance" or "nondiscrimination."

Why is racism seen as much more of a serious personal fault than adultery? Of course neither is an acceptable thing, but why do we obsess about the first and almost ignore the second?

The concrete has come to be valued vastly less than abstract, passive coexistence, and gender or racial or other kinds of sensitivity. But one can be an asshole in practice and be admired. (see Jobs, Steve).

People aren't going to behave when society puts so little emphasis on treating others well in concrete situations. If predators and assholes can get away with it, they will. That's one answer to G's frustration. Our social rules have little to say about it.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Ends and life-chances

Eric Hobsbawm, the famous British Marxist historian, just died. The Guardian reprinted a piece of his from 2009.

But a progressive policy needs more than just a bigger break with the economic and moral assumptions of the past 30 years. It needs a return to the conviction that economic growth and the affluence it brings is a means and not an end. The end is what it does to the lives, life-chances and hopes of people. Look at London. Of course it matters to all of us that London's economy flourishes. But the test of the enormous wealth generated in patches of the capital is not that it contributed 20%-30% to Britain's GDP but how it affects the lives of the millions who live and work there. What kind of lives are available to them? Can they afford to live there? If they can't, it is not compensation that London is also a paradise for the ultra-rich. Can they get decently paid jobs or jobs at all? If they can't, don't brag about all those Michelin-starred restaurants and their self-dramatising chefs. Or schooling for children? Inadequate schools are not offset by the fact that London universities could field a football team of Nobel prize winners.

The test of a progressive policy is not private but public, not just rising income and consumption for individuals, but widening the opportunities and what Amartya Sen calls the "capabilities" of all through collective action. But that means, it must mean, public non-profit initiative, even if only in redistributing private accumulation. Public decisions aimed at collective social improvement from which all human lives should gain. That is the basis of progressive policy - not maximising economic growth and personal incomes. Nowhere will this be more important than in tackling the greatest problem facing us this century, the environmental crisis. Whatever ideological logo we choose for it, it will mean a major shift away from the free market and towards public action, a bigger shift than the British government has yet envisaged. And, given the acuteness of the economic crisis, probably a fairly rapid shift. Time is not on our side.

He is of course right that the main point ought to be "The end is what it does to the lives, life-chances and hopes of people." Economic growth is only a means to an end.

In practice, of course, Hobsbawn was sympathetic with regimes that mostly destroyed life-chances, and indeed lives. Judged in terms of consequences, progressive policy often accomplishes the opposite of what it intends or officially advocates. Lenin offered "Peace, Land, Bread". Russia got civil war and expropriation and famine.

But what this ought to tell us is that if you pretend to be neutral about ways of life, by default you are allowing other people to set the terms of the conversation. You still will have a consequential version of the good life even if you do not intend it.

There is no reason at all why a more concrete focus on the kind of life available to people ought to entail massive shifts towards government. But if all the right has to counter it is a libertarian Ayn Rand utopia, or ignoring the matter altogether, it only makes turgid back-to-the-1970s outcomes it more likely. Romney's libertarian approach is very unconvincing. Arguing about market v government, as this election campaign seems to circling around, is stale and outdated.

We need a more concrete discussion about the good life - the kind of lives we want in practice, the kind of lives we want GDP to buy us. Of course, people will not agree on every detail. But psychology tells us they is more commanality in what people want out of daily life than we usually believe.