Wednesday, 16 September 2009

More on FEAR and the real impact of poverty

I saw this comment by 'Ruth Ray' in May 2008. It is wonderfully eloquent and concise. I am reproducing it here because it backs up my theory on the impact of Fear (see and because it also backs up my theories on the impact of changes in the UK economy away from unskilled industries towards service industries, and the impact of living in a rough area in a tiny flat.

OK it's only anecdotal, not a scientific paper, and I'm biased because I'm not printing any counterfactual. That's my prerogative, so bite me. The original can be found at along with a typical spread of right-wing moronic comments. Where you see bold I added it for emphasis.

"I have a friend who is a single mum, like most - not through choice but due to marital breakdown. Did you know that domestic violence kills more women aged between 19 and 44 than anything else? Like many she would love to have the strength and support of a loving and caring partner - but such eligible men are few and far between and her experience has taught her caution. As she said to me once, 'I would never trust another man with my kids.'

My friend fled a violent marriage with her young children and is one of the toughest mothers I know. She certainly doesn't 'spare the rod' with them. They also have a strong faith life. But in their neighbourhood gangs rule. Drugs and violence are commonplace. My friends kids are now well into teen-age. There are no secular clubs or innocent activities for the young people in that area and my friend's sons (who are my 'honorary grandsons') are tempted to carry knives because of their real fears. They have started to stay out late and both my friend and I are very worried.

The boys are taller and stronger than their mother. She can't force them to do anything. As far as she knows they do not carry knives � but while they don't own 'designer weapons' there are vegetable knives in the kitchen quite sharp enough to act as a lethal weapon. You can't lock teenage kids up in a cramped house, with nothing but the television, and expect them to stay healthy or sane. But the streets and gangs round there are crazy. The boys don't want to get into gang life but they have to have some friends.

I was reading all these blogs to see how best to advice my 'honorary grandsons' and to be honest I've found it depressing. So much hot air, prejudice and ignorance. So much total ignorance about what the real life for families like this is like. The most useful comment for me on the blogs here is that 'everyone needs a sense of belonging.' In the inner cities this comes from gang membership. If someone like my 'grandsons' lives in a gang-dominated district they will be bullied if they don't join a local gang - and that means real danger as well as social isolation. But if they join the gang they are likely to get dragged in to many activities � including crime and being around people who carry knives � or guns - which they do not want to be involved with. And once involved in a gang it is almost impossible to get out again. Breathe a word about anything you know to the police and you put your entire family at risk from every gang in the district.

Fear is the controlling force. I read recently that studies of youngsters in prison showed over 40% had been pressured by gangs into their crimes and had no wish at all to do those things - but they did not know how to get their lives free. This is an area which needs a lot of study and effective action.

My friend survives on benefits and lives in a council house. She would love to move, to live in a 'good' area with a house big enough for her kids to have their own room and a garden. She's been trying to get an exchange for over 10 years. She would love a job that paid enough to run a car so she could take the kids out sometimes even on holiday - but her priority is to be a good mother and make sure she is at least there for the kids when they get home from school and they all can sit down for a meal together in the evening. As she says - the kids are her responsibility. If she's not there for them, no-one else will be. Her 'life' can start when they're grown.

My grandsons would like to get work. An income would give pride and prestige as well as opening up possibilities of travel and escape from the ghetto life. But unskilled jobs are few and far between for young lads with no experience, poor education, no transport and the handicap of an unsavoury post-code. If anyone has any genuine answers to this dilemma or any tried and tested good advice for me, my friend or my grandsons I would welcome it.

I think that it is an idea to remember the Native American proverb, 'Never criticise anyone until you have walked a mile in his moccasins' I think the African proverb is also pertinent - 'It takes a whole village to raise a child.' My own view is that there are no simple answers. But the more we can work with real people and real situations and not indulge ourselves by repeating false and facile generalisations, the more hope of finding a genuine and effective way forward. "

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A case in point: alcohol advertising

Picking up on the tension between social benefit vs social harm, here is a topical article in the socially-minded Guardian today:

In an offsetting statement:
"The BMA is ignoring all the evidence that advertising causes brand switching, not harmful drinking," said David Poley, chief executive of alcohol industry trade body the Portman Group.
"A ban would not improve our drinking culture and could even be counter-productive. The University of Sheffield found it would create fiercer price competition which could actually increase overall consumption. Lasting social change can be achieved only through sustained education accompanied by proper enforcement of the alcohol laws."

This reminded me of another key concept I'll be exploring more: the differences between 'need' and 'want'... and the difference between hostile/exploitative advertising that aims to stimulate a 'want' and even convince you it is a 'need' or 'deserved', and on the other hand advetising that aims to get you to switch brands for a product you already were going to buy (typically on the need side e.g. toilet bleach).

I will be exploring how much of the UK economy is accounted for by 'want' spending vs 'need' spending, and I'll explore ways in which the consumer could change to wanting less harmful things, and ways in which advertising could operate without driving the current cycle of:

1. damage someone's self-esteem / self-worth, then
2. Offer them a product that will restore the self-esteem

Obviously this is done in a clever subconscious manner, but this is the technique in a nutshell. Make people feel inadequate and show them that they can buy their way out of the negative feeling. This of course is a nonsense. The purchase does little (beyond 1hr) other than add stress to the purchaser who has probably extended their debt or reduced their savings in order to buy it.

The advertising industry is absolutely brilliant at its job. Think what those same brains could achieve towards positivity if incentivised correctly.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

(Socially) sustainable Capitalism

I've been musing for some time now over how to make this into as big a buzzword as environmental sustainability.

It's the idea that, for the mutual benefit of business and individual, capitalism needs to nurture, or at least not continue to endanger, social fabric. Just as destroying the environment will have a detrimental effect on business as well as the dog-walker, accelerating social decline will too. An anarchistic and mentally ill social environment is bad for business (hence the concentration of business in socially stable places and flight from countries that break down politically into excess violence).

The model does exist in embryonic form: for some years there's been a 'Corporate Social Responsibility' CSR agenda (companies should have a policy and brag about it in networking circles and brochures), which wierdly tended to concentrate more on the if it was a proxy for society. These days it is more being called simply Corporate Responsibility. But it is a niche scene, and is overwhelmed with bad press provided by over-simplistic 'protestors' who unfortunately don't have much to offer by way of better ideas, more just blowing hot air about the things they don't like...and hence they can comfortably be ignored by those in the know and in the driving seat.

I'd like to see it argued through in economic terms by economists, to add some credibility - if there is any to be had.

There is a grim socially-disconnected angle to all this: if capitalism kills the environment, the next big growth area simply becomes environmental repair, or protection from the consequences of environmental moves on by morphing into industries designed to repair the damage done by its previous incarnation. Similarly in a more anarchic environment, 'security' becomes a lucrative trade. In this model society suffers while business thrives. I don't think a well-oiled economy would actually get that far (reference the explosive growth of the green sector in recent years... i.e. the world considers itself close enough to a horizon-level environmental disaster to invest big-time in reversing the trend before we get there), but then this is probably because people (esp the credible FoE) got it on the agenda.. which is why I want social impact on the agenda.

Let me be clear: I see no better mechanism for general social stability, and matching population growth, than the free market (succinctly argued in para6, p4 of web link below). However it is fundamentally based on a social/financial hierarchy, with disproportionately more people earning disproportionally less in order to secure profit for the few. This is not heresy, just how it works. I just think we need to keep one eye on the bottom rungs to be sure that the disenfranchised (for whatever reason) do not get to the point of revolting or doing so much lasting damage to themselves and those around them that our country / world becomes a grotesque place in which to live... or becomes an unattractive base for business which could contribute to serious economic decline (with associated social disaster). As much as anti-capitalists don't want to hear this, in this case I think it is better to improve a predictable, workable system rather than cause even greater upheaval by attempting to overthrow it. Like Aikido martial art: use the energy of your attacker to control him.

The true free-marketeers will probably inform me that a truly free market would take care of this all by itself. Maybe we haven't got one that is free enough, or maybe this isn't the case. In any case I think the debate should be on an agenda somewhere, just as protection of the environment has become pretty embedded in the corporate mindset of today. This will be a huge challenge though, because environmental damage is clear cut and objectively measurable... but social damage is tricky to quantify, and can be argued as self-inflicted (the environment rarely hurts itself by drinking too much high-strength effluent). Is this why we shy away from thinking about it - because it is so complex and politically fraught?

A really good paper on the subject is here: There will be a later blog that discusses the topic in its entirety, concentrating on illustrating the mechanisms whereby Capitalism is on the causative side of social ailments and ultimately violence - and making clumsy attempts (as a non-economist) at proffering ideas for the future, but this latter activity I prefer to give to the professionals to debate and act upon. But never forget that capitalism is absolutely fundamental to *preventing* violence as well (I will explain myself on this too). So it's a fascinating case.

If any of you happen across related literature, be sure to let me know!

There is a connection to youth violence here. Most of the violent youth are the offspring of the underclass, most of whom fell off the legal capitalist ladder a long time ago (or never got on - except for on the buy side via credit cards) but are well embedded in the black market side of capitalism. I think that it is in large part because they have *so little to lose* that their behaviour deregulates (My Dad always said it is crucial for every citizen to have 'skin in the game'), which empowers my call for keeping them in the legal Capitalist foodchain somehow.

PS May I point out advertising of products such as anti-wrinkle cream, which only exists because the industry-led media channels have successfully sold wrinkles as being undesireable. In this way a socially negative effect of Capitalism (self-loathing) is in fact the driving force for an entire industry sector. I could even argue that a great many forms of disliking one's current status are driven by capitalist forces to the financial benefit of capitalists... But this is the exact battleground of the debate: those same 'nasty' industries employ armies of people who are socially benefited by having an income... but could there have been another industry instead of that one?