Saturday 30 November 2013

A letter to Boris Johnson

Dear Boris,

Last week you  created a media storm with your speech at the Centre for Policy Studies in London. As a self-publicist, you make Katie Price look like a case of social phobia, and maybe you are pleased with the column inches you attracted. But perhaps you are also made nervous by the many commentators who have suggested that you have damaged your chances of greater political glory by letting the avuncular mask slip and revealing what lies behind it.
As a eulogy for Margaret Thatcher, your speech was most effective, though it came across as a transparent bid to take on her mantle.  But it also revealed a blind spot in your understanding of your fellow human beings.  This is evidence in the two themes that run through the speech: (1) people are motivated solely by competition with others; (2) those who win competitions are morally superior and more deserving than those who lose.
Let’s look at the evidence in the speech.  The first comment that gave me pause was this: “Of the 193 present members of the UN, we have conquered or at least invaded 171 – that is 90 per cent.” This is presented as if it is something to be proud of. As someone who’d like to peaceably get on with my neighbours, I find it disturbing that a man who has ambitions to lead our country sees domination of other nations as an admirable goal.
You then go on to argue that as Britain’s empire waned, we suffered from a “spiritual morosity that bordered on self-loathing”.  Not my memory of the 1960s-70s. It was all rather jolly what with flower power and the sexual revolution (all made possible through science and the advent of the pill).  According to you, part of Thatcher’s greatness was that she revived the nation and created “a buccaneering environment where there was no shame – quite the reverse – in getting rich.” So instead of invading other countries and stealing their resources, we could elbow our way ahead of others in our own country, and feel smug about it at the same time. I do remember those days, which was exactly when my own spiritual morosity set in. Encounters with various businesses – utilities, banks, large shops, car hire firms, airlines – which had previously been straightforward and uneventful became obstacle courses that you had now to negotiate with extreme caution, because they were all trying to rip you off. You needed to be on your guard, as the default assumption was that they’d try to stitch you up and lock you in to the wrong kind of deal, with unnecessary insurance to boot and nasty little charges added on at the last moment. Those of a more recent generation may find this hard to believe, but you used to be able to interact with any large-sized company on the assumption that they were honest and cared about their reputation.  The “buccaneering environment” that Thatcher introduced delivered us into the hands of the pirates. Which was a good thing if you were a pirate, but not much fun for everyone else.
The part of your speech that has attracted most comment is when you talked about IQ. Full marks for demonstrating an understanding of the normal distribution, but less than full marks for the logic of your argument:
Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.
And for one reason or another – boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants - the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”
It’s unclear how far you understand IQ – some people have suggested you think it’s a measure of innate ability. But in a sense it doesn’t matter whether you recognise it is modifiable or not; the real problem is you confuse someone’s intellectual abilities with their worth. You seem to be saying that bright people deserve to succeed (and indeed we should give them knighthoods for their wealth generation activity) – whereas at the same time you seem to accept that there are some individual differences in ability. So are you saying that the less able people deserve to be poor? The cornflake analogy you use is not entirely clear, but it seems to amount to saying that you want to stimulate further inequalities between people – and surely that means the poor getting poorer while the rich get richer?
What I find particularly chilling in your speech is the view of human beings as motivated primarily by envy, greed, and the need to get to the top, as well as the implication that if you don’t you are stupid. You seem unaware that there are large numbers of people who are motivated by things like interest in what they are doing (e.g. scientists), a desire to help others (e.g. doctors, nurses, teachers or carers), or a creative urge (e.g. writers and artists). When confronted with a banker whose annual income is fifty times as much as average earnings, for many of us the feeling is not so much envy as incomprehension. Why would anyone need all that money? Don’t they feel embarrassed at having so much more than everyone else? Weren’t they taught that you care for those less fortunate than yourself and that greed was a bad thing? Well, clearly not, because, as you tell us, Thatcher changed the culture so that there was “no shame – quite the reverse – in getting rich.”  
You don’t say what you think about the legions of people who exist happily on moderate incomes, but the implication is that they are all suckers, who’d be better off with a good dose of greed and envy. Indeed, you imply they are parasitic on the rich, who create all this wealth by paying massive amounts of tax. This is a good way to enrage a substantial part of the electorate.
At least from time to time you give a nod of recognition of the need for philanthrophy:
“But I also hope that there is no return to that spirit of Loadsamoney heartlessness – figuratively riffling banknotes under the noses of the homeless; and I hope that this time the Gordon Gekkos of London are conspicuous not just for their greed – valid motivator thought greed may be for economic progress – as for what they give and do for the rest of the population”
But, dear Boris, if you set up a system that rewards the greedy, you can hardly expect them to change their ways and start being philanthropic once they’ve made it. The main reason the very rich end up commandeering all the resources is because they are never satisfied. Like you, they are motivated by a sense of intense competition with everyone else. They won’t think about whether their income is sufficient to live a comfortable life; all they care about is having more money than everyone else.  And people like that are not going to make philanthropic donations; on the contrary they will avoid paying tax using any means that is legally available to them.  And you, by clapping them on the back for their avarice, are just encouraging them.
I agree with you that capitalism and competition are unlikely to disappear; they are an inherent part of our economic system. I also agree that we cannot prevent inequality; the key question for politicians is how best to manage it. According to you we should give greed and envy a free rein because they have such good consequences.  I disagree. I do not feel proud to be British in a country that treats its most vulnerable citizens with contempt, and values the qualities of competition, envy and greed over those of co-operation, compassion and moderation.