Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Democracy or Fallacy?

It only occurred to me the other day that one of the greatest hurdles in solving the world's problems is that we don't live in a democracy.  Not even close.  Most people would probably agree that it takes a balanced cross-section of skills to make a society run smooth.  The right mix of, say, doctors, scientists, engineers, carpenters, teachers, artists, and so on.  It's impossible to say what the exact ratio should be, but what we can say is that in a democracy each should get an equal say in what's best for the country.  Now, it's true we all get an equal right to vote.  But in a developed and (relatively) stable country like the UK a vote doesn't count for much as the alternatives are so similar.  We only have three main parties and two of them are in power!  So every couple of years or so the doctors and the scientists, etc., each get to vote in some fairly meaningless election, whereas every day it is only politicians that get to vote in the important legislation-making decisions.  Now, if doctors know about medicine and carpenters are skillful with wood, what are the skills that set politicians apart?  There are a lot of negative answers to this one, but keeping positive, politicians are good at making arguments.  Essentially, they are good at having opinions, and making the case for those opinions.

Ah, I hear you argue, but politicians may come from any background.  This is true, but in no one's imagination is the make-up of any political body representative of the population at large.  Take the US congress.  Of its 535 members, 222 of them are ... wait for it ... lawyers.  Ten of them are scientists.  The latter group are trained to ascertain facts.  The former group are trained in the selective use of facts to win arguments.  With whom would it be best to entrust our most important decisions?

Finally, to illustrate this point most sharply, I want to re-tell a story I read about the UK Chancellor, George Osborne.  He is currently grappling with the biggest economic challenge of our era, maybe ever; a problem which no one understands.  It's comforting to note then that Osborne has no formal training in economics.  But there is one thing he is outstanding at, illustrated nicely by this tale.  At the age of 17 George was due to take part in a debate about nuclear disarmament, and he was arguing the case for maintaining a nuclear deterrent.  A tall order in itself, but as he rose to speak he was called away to play in a rugby match. Leaving his notes behind, some guy in the audience stood and read them for him.  He won unanimously.  He won, without even being there, by the strength of his arguments only.  Just as a footnote, Osborne didn't even know he wanted to be a politician, he just fell into a role of researcher at the Conservative Office and then a speech writer (of course) for William Hague.

So, the country (world) is being run be a bunch of individuals who are very good at getting their point across, sometimes despite the facts.  But then, of course, it is just as ludicrous to consider that we have a referendum on every state decision.  Maybe if we've got a point to make we all need to get together an stand outside a church ... no, hold on, don't think that's such a good idea either.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Social Media: It's Time to Open Up

The final straw has been cast onto the camel's back of my social-media tolerance.  And now you must endure my whinging about said straw ... and the two before that - you lucky lucky things.

The final straw was cast by the mobile handset manufacturer HTC - who I did have a lot of respect for - but who have now spent however many millions of dollars on developing a very slick and feature-rich phone.  It looks like a nice phone.  I might even have considered it for my next upgrade.  Except for one tiny little detail.  And that tiny little detail happens to be a rather familiar blue-square-with-a-white-F-in-it motif.  Yes, it's been unashamedly branded as a Facebook phone.  I don't just mean it's a phone on which you can use Facebook - you can do that on any smartphone.  No, I mean that this phone's one-and-only little button, is none other than the aforementioned blue square we cannot seem to escape these days.  And what does the button do?  Well it rather nauseatingly offers a 'one touch to Facebook' capability, of course.  Excuse me while I decide whether to cry or vomit.

The penultimate straw was Google+.  I've lived through FriendsReunited and MySpace and Facebook and the one positive that can be stated for this progression is that it was a progression in the that the forerunners fell by the way side and slipped into near obscurity.  But this trend has stopped.  New services are forming without the old ones dying off. Google+ is the latest to join the fray.  Does the world really need another address book to manage?  Before the internet, I only had one!  Technology was supposed to make life easier.  It was supposed to do away with mundane tasks, not pile on evermore layers of social bookkeeping.

The antepenultimate straw was the explosion of these social media brands into every corner of my life, in particular onto public services like the BBC.  I don't believe that it's appropriate for a supposedly non-commercial and impartial entity like the BBC to say the words Facebook and Twitter a million times a day.  How is it different from them saying, "and if you'd like a drink after the show, why not try Coca-Cola?"  And it's not just those two names, many times I've heard the News chaps say "and joining us by Skype".  Why do we need to know?  Do they think it makes them seem hip and trendy?  It doesn't.  It's product placement just the same.

So, that's it.  I've had enough.  It's time for me to spell out the next great evolutionary step that the internet must take - for all our sakes.  But we'll get to that.  First, let me offer some context.

You would be forgiven for thinking that we didn't know how to communicate before the likes of Twitterbook and SkypedIn and whatever the hell other globalised monsters have emerged from the Valley of Silicon.  But we did know, and we did so without the utterance of a brand name or the reliance on bespoke technology.  We never had to say 'send me a RoyalMail' or 'I'll give you a BritishTelecom later.'  And even when the internet trundled into existence we could simply 'email' people - we didn't have to 'Hotmail' them.  I didn't need to have a Hotmail account to email someone who did, or a Lycos account to email someone who chose that as their provider.  It almost went that way.  In the early days, CompuServe and (the original form of) AOL were closed off networks, with the internet just providing the route to their door.  But common sense (or something) prevailed, open standards were written, and lo we could all communicate and exchange our various monikers in a brandless fashion.  Even when the web came along, it was all beautifully non-proprietary.  At the end of the BBC News they never had to say, visit our 'Yahoo page' - they still don't.

Fortunately, it was understood at an early stage that an electronic mail system and the world wide web would only ever work as an open enterprise, because these two services are arguably the two most fundamental services built on top of the internet.  Of course, the internet hosts countless other applications: multi-player video games, financial transactions, video conferencing, streaming TV and radio.  But there is a key difference with these applications ... it doesn't matter if people don't all use the same one.  It doesn't matter if some people play Call of Duty, some play World of Warcraft and some play Pacman - and it doesn't matter if these games don't interact with each other.  In fact, it's better that way ... it's called competition.  But with email and the web - just like the internet that underpins them - we all have to be a part of the same system.  We all have to be part of a single globally defined addressing and naming scheme.

Think of the web (or email) like a railway system.  The stations can all be owned by different people and look totally different, just like websites or email providers do.  But there can only be one rail network running between them.  And the trains themselves, well they can have anything in them, just like your emails can, as long as the outside of the train is the right shape.  The magic would is protocol.  Anyone can build a train, or lay tracks or run a rail service, just as long as there is an agreed protocol that they all conform to.  Such a non-proprietary protocol is often called an 'open standard' - one which anyone is free to use.

So what does this have to do with Facebook phones?  Well, I have a very serious point to make.  In fact, I have what might be termed a Big Idea.  It's an idea that could revolutionize the internet.  Or it could be read by about 6 people and ignored.  Time will tell.  Anyway, my Big Idea is this:
An open standard to exchange social media information
Boring, huh?  Well maybe, but revolutionary it is too.  Because social media is no longer a little experiment by a few enterprising start-ups.  There are in fact no words to describe just how big it is.  Facebook is pushing a billion users all on its own.  A billion.  That's insane.  On this scale we cannot deny that a social media facility is now the third fundamental service offered by the internet, after email and the web.  It's time for it to be recognised as such and it's time for it to be treated in the same way.  And by the same way, I mean: a single social media addressing system and a choice of whatever vendor's application you like to exploit it - just like email or the web.

The belief that this makes sense hinges on the realisation that we have reached a point where all the social media sites are converging on the same set of features.  Those being:
  • Defining a set of contacts (be they friends, associates or whoever)
  • Posting status updates
  • Uploading pictures
  • Instant messaging
  • Video/voice chat
  • Installation of arbitrary third-party apps/plug-ins.
All of the following do no more than the above: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Skype.  And yet I have an account with all of them!  I don't want to have.  All I want is a single application, with fine control over who-sees-what (and indeed, what-I-see).  And what would be the result?  Well, I could use Facebook and you could use Google+ and somebody else could use an open source offering - and we could all share our social media.  How jolly!  Only in this way can we avoid in a few years time an endless list of brands being reeled off at the end of every TV and radio show: "follow us on this, join our page on that, visit us over here".  Only in this way can we avoid having to jump on a new social bandwagon every few years, with all the overheads that entails.

So it's time for me to stand up and make a request to the world for
An open standard to exchange social media information.
It is feasible.  Not trivial, but feasible.  I know, as well as anyone, how much effort it will require to put together such a standard.  But it is needed.  I absolutely believe that it is.  If you believe that it is too, please just spread the word.  I here social media is a good way of doing that :)

Over and out,
Newell ... you can follow me on Twitter ;)

Monday, 4 July 2011

Because We're Worth It (Mostly)

I'm sorry, but I make no apologies for returning to 'the Guide', for another insightful observation by Douglas Adams. In his second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, we learn of a race called the Golgafrinchans.  Their planet was (supposedly) doomed to be destroyed by a great catastrophe, and so they built three ships.  In the first ship, the 'A' ark, would go all the high-achievers: the great leaders, scientists, thinkers and the like.  In the 'C' ark would go all the people who did actual work, who made things and did stuff.  And in the 'B' ark would go everyone else, the middlemen ostensibly.  Duly, the 'B' ark was sent off into the darkness of space, and ... and everyone else just stayed where they were and congratulated themselves on such a clever ruse.

This is of course just fiction, and indeed fiction pertaining to an entirely other race.  In no way is it meant to endorse a view (of myself or Adams, I'm sure) that one third of society here on Earth are so worthless that they can be blasted into space without being missed.

But ... it makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Who does deserve a one-way trip on the B ark?  Anyone?

Okay, before we get into that, let's step back.  All the way back to where we started in fact.  What's our ultimate goal here?  Something like: 'to maximise sustainable equitable happiness'?  Hmm, maybe.  Bit fluffy though isn't it?  Let's leave that for the longer term and get more (but not totally) concrete for today.  Basically, I would argue, our aim is to gain the most utility for the least effort.  More precisely, we want to maximise the 'true net worth' of our output (globally) and minimise the hours we have to work to achieve it.  The 'net' in 'true net worth' means we've counted for all the negative impacts of our activities, such as to the environment, our health, community and family values.  And the 'true' means we're not talking about monetary value, but contribution to the greater good.  So, for example, a landmine might cost the same to produce as a laptop, but (arguably) the latter has more worth to society.

None of this is easy to measure, but the concepts are easy to understand, and that's all that's required to have the discussion.  So, the infinite extreme of the worth:work ratio is the utopian ideal.  Everyone has everything they could ever desire, but nobody has to work to achieve it.  Near the other end of the extreme consider the industrial revolution where many people (including children) worked 10-12hrs a day, six or seven days a week, and yet experience what most would consider less than a decent standard of living.  Today we are somewhere between the two, which means we have moved in the right direction, but we are a long way from the ideal.

This brings us back to the arks.  To shift further along the worth:work scale we need to eradicate waste.  Waste of all kinds, sure, but I'm not focusing on plastic here, rather the waste of work with no worth.  Hours invested with no return.  We need to identify the roles that should go into the B ark.  Just for fun you realise.

In this quest, we must remember that there is no accounting for taste.  We have to strive to be objective when judging the worth of something to society.  For example, you may consider that we'd be better off without McDonalds.  But we must accept that people like McDonalds.  And you can't use the argument that McDonalds has a negative impact on the nation's health, because so does chocolate and ice cream and chips and beer - and many other lovely-tasting things consumed in excess.  We have to consider anything that can be consumed in moderation without long-term ill effects to be of worth to society for the pleasure they bring.  And so all those working hard to coat things in grease in fast-food outlets the world over, congratulations, you get your ticket to the stay-at-home C ark.

We have to be subjective in many other fields too.  Few will argue that the Foo Fighters are worthy, for all the pleasure they bring to millions of music lovers.  But Jedward?  Well, unfortunately, we can't be in the business of making individual judgement calls on the merits and talents of limitless 'artists'.  If they make a living by entertaining - or by creating art - they get to avoid the B ark.  For what it's worth in appeasing the masses, the Foos get an upgrade from C ark to A, because they are creators as well as doers.  (Although, that supposedly means Beyonce gets her over-sized song-writing butt on there too).

Whilst we're on the subject of entertaining, we have to consider sports stars.  Are they worthy, even though they don't bake cakes or invent vacuum cleaners?  Well, as it stands today, people love watching sport - it even brings meaning to people's lives.  Some people could not imagine life without, say, football.  As such, as much as it sickens me to say so, we must allow the disgustingly overpaid stars of football and other sports to stay behind too - despite the fact, when you break it down, their skills are based around an entirely arbitrary framework of conditions.

In our search for B ark passengers, maybe starting with the middlemen, as they were referred to originally, will reap some candidates.  Who are middlemen?  Middlemen are people who connect a consumer to a producer and take a cut.  The likes of: travel agents, estate agents, recruitment agents.  Aha - now we are talking!  I guess I have to admit that some middlemen do add value, but an awful lot seem only to exist because they always have done, because nobody (or not everybody) has realised they aren't needed any more.  Increasingly, with the availability of information offered by the internet, the need for 'agents' is diminishing, and the layers of indirection between producer and consumer are disappearing.  There used to be an insurance broker on every high-street.  Now how many are there?  Ineffectual middle men and women beware.  Your number is up.  And it's a B.

Here's a good industry to consider: marketing.  Fair enough, some marketing brings a new product or service to the attention of consumers who would otherwise not have known about it.  This obviously has value.  But the vast majority of marketing mullah is spent on brand awareness, on differentiating strikingly similar products in the eyes of the public.  As an example, almost every major supermarket sells Red Bull and an own brand equivalent.  They are virtually identical in make-up, yet the former normally sells at five-times the price of the latter.  So for every £1 spent on Red Bull, 80p is over the odds (due largely to the vast sums spent on marketing), and it's hard to see where the consumer has gained.  It would therefore appear that there is much we can call wasteful in the world of marketing.  And when it comes to traditional marketing in the form of media advertising, I stand by this.  But there's a problem here.  Most of Red Bull's marketing is not in this form.  Instead, they aggressively sponsor sports tournaments, they own sports teams, they have even created their own new sporting events from scratch.  And beyond sport they have founded the Taurus World Stunts Award for film stunts.  It's actually staggeringly impressive what they've brought to the world from a single can of drink.  So although the consumer of the drink may not be benefitting from the marketing effort, other consumers (sports fans, etc.) are.  Oddly, s/he is paying for someone else's enjoyment.  Either way, there is net worth.  Conclusion, marketers, they stay with us.  Most of them.

Who else is worthy?  Let's do some easy ones.  Doctors, no question.  Farmers, of course.  Tradesmen and women, ditto.  Scientists, yes indeedy.  All useful folk.  Engineers.  Manufacturers.  Yes, yes, yes.

Hold on.  Rewind.  Manufacturing?  Hmm.  Engineers?  Even Scientists?  Doesn't it rather depend on what they are working on?  What if they are manufacturing cigarettes?  What if they are engineering bombs?  What if they are synthesizing the next cocaine?  It's not that clear cut (the issue not the cocaine).  Let's consider that middle one.  Bombs.  People will argue (as they will about the entire defence industry) that bombs have immense value in providing national security and acting as a deterrent to war.  But this misses the point.  It's looking at a big picture, for sure, but it's not looking at the big picture.  We're trying to ascertain what adds intrinsic worth to the global society.  Things like food and films, ipods and igloos, cars and chairs, haircuts and holidays, all have intrinsic value.  We like them.  Even the things we don't like to spend money on, like MOT tests, have the obvious value to society of ensuring that cars on the road are safe (to a degree).  Same goes for servicing the boiler or buying a mop.  But what benefit do I get from the missile factory up the road?  If there were no threat we would not still make missiles.  In utopia there are no tanks!  (That sounds like a Banksy graffito - I'm proud).  And don't forget, in our little thought experiment we are eradicating worthless activities (and those of negative worth).  So that includes crime and, you know, international terrorism.  All the criminals, terrorists, war mongers and evil dictators unquestionably get a ride on the B ark.  Actually, that's a bit unfair on the recruitment agents.  Maybe we should have a new ark for the criminals.  Call it something grand like, I dunno, Antipodea.  Just kidding!  (Have a feeling that will get lost in the edit).

This line of thought has quite fundamental consequences.  If we were to get rid of all the bad people in the world, then there would be no true net worth generated be the entire defence industry.  Or police, or secret service, or private security firms, or most of the justice system.  Or anyone involved in the manufacture of anti bad-people devices, like surveillance systems, car alarms, locks!  Am I going too far?

Let me clarify here that I'm not really advocating the blasting into space of locksmiths (or, ahem, people that work in the defence industry), merely trying to tot up what proportion of the work we do that actually has no net positive output.  Douglas Adams' fictional account implied a figure of one third, which seemed a bit high to begin with.  But once we include all activity involved in countering or preventing bad behaviour (from dropping litter to blowing up planes) then it's probably not that far off.  It may be bugging to realise just how much effort is going to waste (on the grand scale of this discussion) ... but on the bright side it means, we have a lot of slack in the system.  We have a lot of room for improvement.  It's just gonna take some figuring it out, and then some.

I guess it should come as no surprise that the greatest barrier to a perfect world is the bad people that are in it.  Not travel agents after all.  What did come as a surprise to me is that although in my career I may have helped protect our nation and uphold peace, I've not added any net worth to the world.  Bummer.

Well, not at work I haven't.  But it's not all about work.  I write books.  And blogs.  And phone apps.  And I grow veg.  Counts for something I guess.

To be continued...


PS:  As a side-note, I have on a number of occasions referenced the above as short-hand in casual conversation - along the lines of "he can be first in line for the B ark".  Bizarrely, I'm always greeted with blank stares.  Seriously, what's going on!?  Please help me out by facilitating the use of this analogy in everyday language.  Ta.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Enjoy this Community Responsibly

I'm going to leave aside issues of global concern for a moment, and instead spin a yarn of more parochial nature.  And like all good stories it will have a hero and a villain - and a damsel in distress.  But first, the setting.  We find ourselves in an area of south Bristol, known as Bedminster, and it's 1995.  This is one of the less classy, more run-down regions of 90's Bristol, and it has a name for being such by city dwellers.  It would seem that Bedminster's path was set, that the part it was to play in this city's drama was written.  But the dream of one man - and the saving of one building - would change its fate.  Bristol architect George Ferguson bought the site of an old tobacco factory to save if from the senseless demolition that fated its sisters.  Ferguson had had a dream for these buildings, to construct “a one million square foot thriving mixed use ‘urban village’". And although this was not to be, the Tobacco Factory project alone has become a model of economical and sustainable urban regeneration. But more than that - much more than that - it started something.  Like a drop of ink on blotting paper, from this single site, rejuvenation began to spread.  Now, in 2011, Bedminster's North Street is a thriving community of independent businesses, bustling with trendy cafes, bars and performance venues.  And the influence continues to spread. Street after street, houses are being painted and fixed up.  The high street to the west is still run down, but there is a sense that it is only a matter of time before the wave reaches these doors too.

But of most importance to this tale is the spark that started if off, and for that we must return to the beginning - to the Tobacco Factory, and its adoptive parent George Ferguson.  For he holds true to personal values which are paramount in our quest for a better place to live.  He is a champion of independent business and he has founded a campaign to 'Strike a Light for Independents!'  There are many reasons why independents are a vital part of a happier future world, but that is a story for another day.

Right now, the Tobacco Factory is our hero, and it is perhaps divine irony that the villain of the piece is juxtaposed such as to almost surround our idolised structure.  The not-so-independent (or socially aware) Aldi supermarket (and its car park) claims a huge swathe of this otherwise independently-driven community.  And with such a large foreign footprint on this land should come an equal measure of responsibility toward the locals, yet it is not a responsibility the store has chosen to accept.  Instead it chooses to spite the local subjects.  In all its wisdom this purveyor of fine foreign brands has installed in their car park a system which automatically doles out a fine of seventy English pounds to anyone who leaves their car there for more than two hours - regardless of how busy the car park is or even whether the store is open.  Indeed, myself and my sister both received fines through the post for leaving our cars there on a Sunday evening, to visit, of course, the Tobacco Factory next door.  Now, I understand that during the week, during business hours, Aldi may have an issue with workers in town occupying their spaces and denying their customers of available parking, and they of course reserve the right to install measures to prevent this.  But a socially responsible company would adapt their policy in two ways.  Firstly, they would issue a warning on first offence, because many people will not see the signs (me included).  Secondly, they would allow the spaces to be used by locals, without fear of punitive measures, outside of their own opening times.  Of course this will not happen, because Aldi have subcontracted the running of the system to an external company who will only earn money if they fine people.  So it is within the interest of the contractor for the policy to be as aggressive as allowed.

The simple rule of business that Aldi has overlooked here highlights one of the key differences between chains and independents.  For an independent business owner would never forget that the passer-by of today is the customer of tomorrow.  There is no distinction to make.  If I park my car and walk away today, it doesn't mean that I didn't shop with you yesterday or won't next week.  Your customers are not just the ones that are at your checkout right at this moment, they are the entire community.  You must treat them all with respect, else they will not return.

I have not returned.  The end.

Oh the damsel?  That would be me then, in this case.  Sorry to disappoint.  But it's also you (who may be far more attractive), and indeed all consumers.  And just to make the point briefly (before that story-for-another-day I mentioned), I am not anti big business, I'm anti socially irresponsible business - big or small.  I'm not asking anyone to boycott Aldi, that's my battle, but I urge people to use the power of social media to highlight any similar tales of woe (as a comment here if you like).  And also, checkout the Tobacco Factory website.

Til next time, P.

(PS: Aldi's brother owners became Germany's first and second richest men)

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Gross National Happiness

In my last post I talked about the failings of GDP.  These observations, of course, are neither ground-breaking nor new.  There are a number of initiatives under way already, each attempting to measure well-being more generally.  The science of happiness is now a recognised and burgeoning field.  And as long ago as 1972 the term Gross National Happiness was coined (by the former king of Bhutan as you might have guessed).  At first glance it would appear that GNH is the obvious alternative to GDP that we've all been waiting for.  It does indeed have the potential to be a very worthy measure, but for all its merits, it does suffer some major drawbacks itself.  And in fear of becoming known as a bit of a naysayer, I will pick them apart here.  (In my defence, this is hopefully another stepping stone on the way to an understanding of what is really important to us).  I have three points to cover and I shall do them in reverse order of importance (as I see them).  So if you are already bored with my constant whinging, you can skip ahead a bit.

The first problem with GNH is that it's a lot more tricky to define than GDP.  To a large extent it is a subjective, interview-based measure.  Fortunately, the subjective concerns regarding happiness questioning have largely been allayed by studies showing that people's responses to questions correlate well with other bodily indicators of emotion.  However, the problem remains that the methods are not transparently portable across language and cultural boundaries.  Questions can never be translated precisely, and responses from people of different cultures - such as those under more repressive regimes - may well not reflect emotions in the same way.  As such, without a globally comparable measure of GNH, governments are unlikely to take it seriously and make it a top priority when policy making.  Of course, it must be noted that the non-portability of a GNH measure across borders does not prevent it being used as a very valuable tool in gauging and comparing happiness between regions.  In itself this makes it worthwhile pursuing.

Brushing aside those fluffy problems of measurement, and assuming we could pin something concrete down, then surely maximising GNH is exactly what we should be striving for?  Drive this up the political agenda and it's happy days all round, right?  Well, as you've come to expect, not quite.  GNH brings along with it two of the major flaws with GDP.

The first is that blasted G at the front.  Gross.  Indeed it is.  Actually, I think it's kinda the wrong term anyway, but, nevertheless, in this context it serves to mean 'total'.  Total happiness.  Sounds awesome, huh?  Well, the problem is, you can increase the total by making the richest richer ... or rather the happiest happier ... and leaving the poor untouched.  That is, you could increase GNH by increasing the happiness inequality.  So a measure that obscures this is potentially dangerous.  We need to be less gross about it.

Finally, the humdinger.  Anyone remember the dot com bubble bursting or the recent credit crisis?  These were both examples of what can result by short-termism, by borrowing from tomorrow to finance today.  Eventually, it all comes tumbling down.  The same applies to GNH.  Such a measure does not account for the future and so could encourage 'unsustainable happiness'.  (I'm not sure why I put that in quotes but it seemed right).  The government could print a hundred billion pounds and give everyone a windfall payment, which would make everyone happier for a while, but it would come back to bite pretty soon, and hard.  Similarly, we could do something in the short term to improve happiness which was detrimental to the environment - and therefore to happiness - in the long term.

So to summarise, I do believe in the concept of a happiness index, but it needs to incorporate inequality rather than being a 'gross' figure.  And, fundamentally, it must take account of the happiness of future generations and not just those answering the questions today, in order that decisions made to improve well-being are sustainable.  None of us wants to experience a happiness crunch! (Although it does sound rather deliciously like a new cereal from Kellogg's - in which case I'll give it a whirl).  Finally, any happiness index must be as easy to calculate and as portable as possible.  Easy for me to say, I know.  I don't have any answers on this today, but I have every faith that lots of far cleverer people than me are working on this very issue in big shiny buildings somewhere :o/  All I can state is that until a happiness index is quoted on the news each month in the same breath as the inflation and unemployment figures, then it will do nothing to push policy.

Enough already.  Time for you to do something more fulfilling.  I will cease talking about boring stuff like measures now, and get on to the real issue of what happiness actually is, next time.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Gross Domestic Poppycock

Somebody might suggest that a discussion on GDP is perhaps not the most scintillating of topics.  That, of course, is an absurd notion, but should a rebuttal be deemed as necessary then let me state this, that taking a look at the significant failings in this most feverishly scrutinised of metrics, is a very good way to prompt debate about what really is important to us. So, on that basis, I shall grant myself permission.

As I'm sure you're aware, GDP, Gross Domestic Product, denotes the total value of goods and services produced by a country over a given period of time, usually a year.  And it is generally used as an indicator of a country's economic health, and so in turn of the general standard of living of a country's citizens. All well and good.  If, that is, the indicator was meaningful.  Unfortunately, it is somewhat flawed.

Firstly, it gleefully ignores any negative impact that results from activities that contribute to it. In this way GDP can be considered as analogous to the revenue of a company.  And although it's good to know that a company is taking £1 million a year in revenue, it is a worthless figure without knowing that the same company's costs are, say, £2 million.  Similarly, GDP tells us the total value of our output, without even a hint at the value of the costs to society. These costs might be: environmental pollution, noise pollution, depletion of resources, crime, stress, reduction of leisure time, loss of community and family values.  This negligence on the part of GDP can lead to ludicrous results.  For example, natural disasters such as the Japanese earthquake and environmental disasters like Exxon Valdez do wonders for GDP - so does this mean we should have more of them? On a smaller scale, an individual that sits for two hours a day in traffic jams to get to/from work, actually has a greater positive effect on GDP than someone who travelled there congestion-free, because of all the extra money spent on fuel.  So, this tells us that clogged up roads are good for the economy, right? Such examples are endless.

The second problem is the flip-side.  The fact that, although the supposed role of GDP is to measure a country's output, it completely ignores a huge sector of unpaid but productive work. Imagine a mother who stays home to care for children - this is productive work which is not accounted for. It would have been, of course, if she'd paid a nanny instead - but where's the difference? Further imagine if, whilst this mother is at home, she also grows fruit and veg in the garden to feed her family. There is a very tangible output to this activity which is also not counted.  Also, what if she cares for an elderly neighbour and volunteers at a charity shop and bakes cakes for the WI raffle and sits on the PTA. She's a busy lady, our mother, it's true.  In fact, she is effectively in full-time productive (albeit unpaid) employment, and yet, apparently, it is not valued, it is not important!

But having had such fun tearing shreds out of GDP, let us step back, and ask, why are we even bothering to attempt to measure economic output in the first place? Do we really care how many Dysons we've bought and how many Ben & Jerrys we've consumed between us?  Shouldn't we be more focussed on how these things make us feel ... and indeed how we feel in general? Isn't the goal to maximise our well-being, not our DVD back catalogue?

It's interesting to note that the politicians and world leaders already get this.  Or at least some of them do ... to some degree.  Back in 2008, President Sarkozy of France asked economists to set up the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (CMEPSP).  We've all heard lots about this haven't we? And in the US, one alternative being considered is the "genuine progress indicator" (GPI) which attempts to address the issues with GDP by discounting costs to society and including work done in the unpaid economy. And only last month the UK's Office for National Statistics started collecting data on happiness and satisfaction, albeit on a small scale of 200,000 people - the first country to do so at a national level.

These are promising steps, and remarkably they're even in the right direction, but until there is consensus among the world nations on a new measure to replace it, GDP will be all we have to rate our performance, which we all so love to do. Until then, GDP will continue to be touted by the public media as the primary indicator of a country's health, and so policy makers will have no choice but to strive to maximise a meaningless number, with increasingly dire consequences.

So the discussion continues: what should our social barometer be?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Deception of Growth

So what am I (and what am I going to be) bleating on about in general anyway?  Well, the world has many problems of course, and I'll discuss some of them in future posts, but it seems clear that a great deal of them are captured neatly by one single statement of fact:
People are no happier today than they were in the 1950s, despite a three-fold increase in their income.
I've paraphrased here for impact, so let me break it down for you.  It refers to people in the US and the UK, and the increase in income is in real terms, meaning that we can buy three times as much stuff with our earnings today than we could in 1950 - and our standard of living has improved correspondingly.  We can fill our homes with PlayStations, mobile phones, HD TVs; and other frivolities like toilets, lighting, central heating and hot running water.  And yet we are no happier?  Surely that can't be?  I've seen how happy Lego Star Wars for PS2 alone makes my friend and this family.

Sadly it is true.  And the reason is well understood.  It stems from the fact that although people care about their income, their wealth and their PS2 games catalogue, what they care about a lot more is how it relates to everyone else's - to the average.  Whether someone feels happy or not depends on how well their lot compares to the Jones's.

And herein lies the paradox.  For whereas society's real incomes can continually grow over time, it is a mathematical impossibility to improve society's relative incomes.  Add up everyone's income expressed as a delta from the mean and the answer will always be zero.

So, what can we conclude from this?  Quite simply,
 Economic growth is not a viable route to a happier society.
And yet growth is still the single most quoted indicator of a country's performance and of its government's success at the helm.  It's almost implicitly understood that growth is good, stagnation is bad and recession is, well, downright cataclysmic.  Yet, considering that growth does not improve well-being in the long run (as proven above), and given that we have a finite number of resources on the planet, which makes the goal of indefinite growth grossly irresponsible anyway, then controlled long-term recession may well be part of the solution.  And stagnation almost certainly is.  It's time to focus on a different indicator.

In my next post I will discuss GDP and how it executes the impressive double-whammy of (a) completely failing to measure what it is trying to measure and (b) not being of any relevance even if it succeeded.  Tune in for the next exciting instalment.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

In Pursuit of Happiness

Occasionally, you will read something that will stay with you forever.
Occasionally, you will attempt to begin a new blog and be struck with a lack of confidence in your worth.

Considering these two facts, I feel it only appropriate to begin my (possibly very brief) career in the blogosphere with the words of someone far more qualified and talented:

One Thursday afternoon, nearly two thousand years after [a] man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything. Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost for ever.
The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
 Douglas Adams, 1979

The girl, we later discover, was called Fenchurch (after the railway station ticket queue in which she was conceived), and ever since first reading this, as a significantly younger human male, it has haunted me.  It has returned to me frequently.  Because, to me it seems more than just fiction.  I really think there is a simple answer.  Because, all complex systems are based on very simple rules.  This has been proven time and time again.  Consider Einstein's famously elegant equation.

So, of course, I've thought about what the answer might be ... a lot. Mostly, when I shouldn't be. People who know me will be aware of my tendency to drift into some other realm mid conversation. Annoying as this may be for them, trust me, it's far safer than when I've done it driving down the motorway on cruise control, only to return to reality and realise I've forgotten what the pedals do.

Anyway, I'm rambling. Back to the blog. My goal with this column is to seek out the essence of Fenchurch's lost epiphany. To find the simple answer - without nailing anyone to anything. The journey, I suspect, is long, for before we get anywhere near an Answer there are an awful lot of things that need to be discussed.  The intention is that that will occur here. I cannot promise as to how regularly my posts will arrive. But then, we've been tackling this problem for two thousand years already, so a short delay here and there will hopefully not serve to inconvenience too many.

Until my next post, with more meat on the bones, so long ... I'm off to eat some fish.

(PS: to pre-empt anyone who makes the rather obvious comment that the answer is 42, let me clarify that that is not the question we are considering.  I'm expecting the answer to be nearer 74.)