Tuesday, 2 April 2013

When Different Rules Apply (November 2011)

When David Cameron talks about a culture of greed and the need to take individual responsibility he’s not referring to the miscreants in suits. The ones who stole our savings, pillaged our pension and left us on the brink of financial and moral bankruptcy. He’s referring to the hooded variety.

If different rules apply for the privileged, the principles of fairness and justice that underpin a democracy are severely undermined. A fair leader will be just as tough dealing with criminality in the police (none of whom were prosecuted for the deaths of Jean Charles de Menezes or Ian Tomlinson), corporations and politics, as she is when dealing with youth rioters. It wasn’t hoodies or women that brought RBS to its knees, yet they’re the ones paying the highest price. Meanwhile, Fred Goodwin, who was amongst those irrefutably responsible, languishes in the Costa del Tax Haven at the taxpayers’ expense. Cameron promised to regulate bankers and stop obscene bonuses. Yet, despite being 83% owned by taxpayers, the new CEO of RBS awarded himself and his top staff a collective bonus of £950m in January. What merited that amount? Making a loss of £1.1bn. Those lucky enough to still have jobs are suffering pay freezes, irrespective of their performance. Different rules apply.

Criminality is wrong, whether you’re rich or poor and the punishment should fit the crime. David Cameron undermines his credibility as a bastion of morality when he issues a get out jail (or avoidance of consequences) card to those with power and wealth. At the same time that the Tories are talking about seizing the rioters’ benefits (why not just put them in orange jump suits and chains) George Osborne has alluded to scrapping the 50p tax rate. Cameron’s cowardice in dealing with the haves is matched only by his callous disregard for the have nots. He describes the rioters, many of whom were children, as sick. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “There can be no keener revelation of society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”.

When I worked with disturbed children, often in care, it was crucial to understand the whole family dynamic. Children don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re products of their environment and as such often become symptomatic of a broader dysfunction. Most of the families were in the poverty trap (generational unemployment, poor education, mental illness) and were struggling to cope. With early intervention many of these families could have been salvaged. If we invested a fraction as much in failing families as we do in failing banks, society as a whole would benefit.

My best friend refused to feign Catholicism (despite having red hair) in order to get her child into a “good” neighbouring school. Instead, she took responsibility to try to improve her child’s not so good school in Tottenham. She became a governor with the intention of attracting better teachers but they didn’t want to work in a “problem” school. There are certain things parents can do to take responsibility but some things are out of their control. David Cameron needs to recognize the government’s responsibility in removing structural barriers that serve to undermine individual responsibility and perpetuate inequality.

Mr. Cameron promised to form a family friendly government but, in practice, he has cut child benefit, tax credits, maternity support and child trust funds. It’s tantamount to robbing our children’s piggy banks to pay the debts of the bankers. Youth unemployment has soared and job centres, like the one in Tottenham where there has been a 75% cut to youth services, have been closed. Still, there’s all that traffic to play with. Meanwhile, in London 20% of the people own 60% of the income. Economic inequality leads to a sense of alienation, injustice and social instability.

The mantra “greed is good” has pervaded and damaged society. Rabid consumerism has forced families into debt so parents work ever longer hours to pay it off. Joel Bakan, the author of “Childhood Under Siege” describes the hostile takeover of childhood by corporations, resulting in narcissistic mini consumers and media addicts He accuses society of betrayal and failing to protect our children.

Also in the news last week, though blink and you’d miss it, there were predictions of a double dip recession. World leaders were accused of lacking in vision and purpose as stock markets plummeted. The governor of the bank of England predicted this in January. He warned that lessons had not been learned by the banks leaving us exposed to another recession. Einstein argued that problems cannot be solved by the people and thinking that created them.

Six years ago, I challenged an academic luminary at a leading business school for declaring that ethics had no place in business. He dismissed any suggestion that employees should be protected from discrimination by asserting “Capitalism is about survival of the fittest. The weak will fall by the way side and that’s how it should be”. He didn’t get that women and minorities sometimes fail, not because of inherent weaknesses on their part but because of a system that is skewed in favour of an elite few (positive discrimination in favour of men is not illegal).

Despite capitalism, in its current form, having failed spectacularly we continue to prop it up. Rather than look at new and more efficient paradigms to correct the system, we have left intact the culture (short termism, rewarding failure, excessive pay, tax havens), inept regulation and "talent" that facilitated its demise.

Fortunately, there is a solution. There’s a profusion of talented women out there with plenty of practice cleaning up after other people’s mess. They can’t do any worse. Unfortunately, precisely when we need women’s contribution the most, they’re being driven out of the workforce by prohibitive child care costs. Policies that undermine the family and discriminate against women go to the heart of the social unrest that led to the riots. Excluding women from positions of power is harmful to the economy and society. In the wake of Enron, the Higgs report found that a few men held multiple boardships and that they were being appointed by a tap on the shoulder rather than competing in a fair process. Isn’t that positive discrimination? Yes, but as long as the beneficiary is not female or black it’s perfectly acceptable. Different rules apply.

Homogeneity leads to group think, which in turn leads to poor problem solving and bad decisions. The status quo cannot be an option if we are to prevent further crises. Now is the time to radically rethink how we structure our institutions, such as the family, work and politics. Let’s start by reframing the gender debate. It’s not about men versus women. It’s about balance of power and opportunity. Children, such as those seen rioting, need fathers as well as mothers and UK plc needs women as well as men at the helm.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


In the words of Martin Luther King "a riot is the language of the unheard" The government have managed to side step the issues behind the riots in Tottenham and Brixton, appealing to vote winning middle class fears of hoodies, benefit scoungers, immigrants and 'sick' kids. Punishing and imprisoning these young people by giving out sentences that far exceed the crime may stem the tide for now but the future may bring a tsunami of unrest. One long hot summer may be all it takes.
To illustrate a major rule difference lets take the issue of Osbourne deciding it prudent to be able to decide who can be prosecuted for tax evasion. Effectively giving the treasury power of veto over politically 'sensitive' cases. And keep it secret! Yet the sentences handed out to the 1300 rioters averaged 4 times what would normally be given for the same offence. Poverty, alienation, social division and no escape are what gave rise to the riots. Different rules don't go unnoticed. More austerity and cutbacks in areas that need investment and care are a disaster waiting to happen. I can't help but fear that it will be expected this time. Maybe even wanted by a government that loves to show who is boss.