Sunday, December 23, 2018

On cakes and donkeys and philanthropic giving

Sweet charity

I’m forever curious at how we make connections; how a chance happening can seem so pertinent to an article we read this morning; or vice versa, how the ideas we consider today, appear to shape the otherwise random events of tomorrow.  Only yesterday, for example, I was reading how some writers favour long opening sentences, using repetition for effect!

Earlier this week, when browsing the Christmas Radio Times I was struck by the number of adverts from charities persuading us to assuage our festive excess. Between articles on this year’s blockbusters and the perfect party nibble, we’re invited to support refugees, sponsor a pony or leave a lasting legacy to save abandoned pets. The plethora of causes that would appear to move us never ceases to amaze me, as does the thought that so many of these organisations have the cash to advertise in the first place.

Hold that thought a moment, we’ll return to it later.

Meanwhile, I was listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, part of his brilliant Revisionist History series, examining ‘things forgotten or misunderstood'. Podcasts are one of my discoveries of the year, and I’ve become mildly obsessed by Gladwell’s slantwise insight and courageous moral compass. The episode concerned philanthropic donations to academic institutions, and in particular, why rich benefactors in the U.S. might donate to, say, Stanford University, which already has an endowment of over $200 billion.

Gladwell’s contention is that the leading universities have an excess of funds, and that greater good would be done by donating to more needy, if less glamorous, institutions. His argument is rich with examples and, as always, driven by a compelling, evidence based, logic. Towards the end of the podcast, he interviews John Hennessy, the then Principe of Stanford, who'd volunteered to try and change his mind.

It’s hard not to agree with Gladwell. His view resonates with my  passionate belief in the unfairness of private and privileged education. As I worked out on the cross trainer - yes I listen to podcasts in the gym - I was as good as cheering him on. There’s an almost comical moment when Gladwell asks Hennessy if Stanford might ever have so much money that he’d consider directing a benefactor elsewhere. Hennessy can’t bring himself to answer directly, and ends up sounding foolish in his evasion.

And yet I wondered if Gladwell was being entirely fair. I’ve spent the best part of twelve years representing the company I work for to its investors. If someone came to me looking to put their money into bio-tech, then in all conscience I’d have to say it's not for us; but if they’ve so much as a vague interest in distribution, my role is to present our case and secure their support. That’s the way competition works - it’s not my job to argue for others, no matter how strong their investment proposition.

Gladwell’s view is that we should expect better of our educators - and I think he has a point. There’s a difference between the goals of business and those of universities: when the prestige of an academic institution comes before its ultimate purpose then something is awry. Gladwell suggest it’s a loss to us all if a handful of wealthy institutions are pursuing ever more marginal projects, while elsewhere, vital research is closing down for lack of cash. And he goes further, suggesting that our collective knowledge is most likely to flourish if we give greater weight to the mass of talent, rather than an elite few.

But while I think Gladwell is right in principle, he’s also idealistic, and I worry his solution might be counter productive in practice.

 Let’s return to those adverts in the Radio Times.  

There’s a part of me that struggles to fathom the mindset of someone who’d leave a legacy to abandoned pets, when according to UNICEF, more than 3 million children die from malnutrition each year. Or for that matter, what motivates a donation to Eton public school (also a charity by the way) when there’s self-evidently greater need in areas of economic deprivation. Or… I could go on, but you get the point, and in any event, what’s the alternative?

There are over 160,000 charities officially registered in England and Wales with the true number estimated to be nearer half a million. Ought we to grade every good cause by some sort of utility index and cajole people into donating accordingly? Many leading charities are effectively a proxy means of funding what should arguably be core public services (the RNLI for example) - and yet would we really be better off taking them into government control so donations could go elsewhere? 

It strikes me that the volunteers who organise a weekly cake sale for our village hall are unlikely to do the same even for a neighbouring community. If I support the mountain rescue because of my love of the outdoors and you are concerned with liver cancer because a friend died recently, isn’t that as good a way to direct our efforts as any? In similar vein, if Stanford University were not to secure the high profile donations it does, who's to say the money would go to institutions elsewhere? 

Inefficient though it is, perhaps the best way to raise funds for good causes is to accept that different plights move different people, and from that cornucopia of interests and motivations - from church roofs to great crested newts, Cancer Research to Greenpeace,  donkeys to refugees - we tap into an ultimately greater well of effort and enthusiasms than we ever would otherwise. 

That’s another long sentence, using repetition for effect - I could probably change it for one that’s technically better, but you know, I rather like it.  Sometimes we’re best to go with the flow.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Breaking with politics ...

This morning's Sunday Times carries an article reporting that more than half of voters think British politics is broken. Evidently, only one in seven of us believes that Labour or Conservative represent the views of the public, and 44% say that the response of MPs to Brexit has damaged their faith in politicians.

Seldom have I empathised more. 

At the height of the referendum, Richard Dawkins argued that the vote was ill-conceived, citing the inability of all but a few technocrats to fathom the consequences of staying in or out of the EU.  On that narrow point, he was probably correct, but his objection misses the rationale of democracy - which is not to arrive at the best answer, but rather, to measure the public sentiment. We each have one vote not because we are equally clever, but because we all have a right to voice our feelings.

Conversely, and at much the same stage in the referendum process,  Michael Gove famously stated that 'people have had enough of experts'.  The statement is logical enough, except that he and every other prominent Brexiteer has subsequently quoted any expert they could find who supports their case. The inconsistency is as staggering as it is brazen.

Watching the Brexit debacle unfold has been simultaneously toe-curling and depressing, not so much for the direction of travel (distressing though that is) as for the quality of the debate.  It's not the intransigence, the lack of listening or even the on-line shouting that annoys me. What I find so disillusioning, is that, after two years of wrangling, in the face of one of the most significant economic and social decision we will make, our politicians still can't bring themselves to speak the truth about their personal views.

And it seems to me that this absence of candour, more than any difference of opinion, is what lies at the root of our collective mistrust.

Take for example Teresa May's shambolic performance on a recent radio talk-in, when asked if she genuinely believed the UK would be better off under her proposed deal than by remaining in the EU? Her stuttering equivocation was palpable, undermining everything else she said, and rightly it made headlines as a result. 

Why could she not simply say something like:

'It's a matter of record that I voted to Remain.  But the referendum result was clear that we should leave, and my duty as Prime Minister is therefore to negotiate the best deal possible for the UK. We can debate whether the proposals achieve this or not, but my view on the benefits of remaining in the EU is no longer relevant.'

Even that answer falls short of what I suspect is the unvarnished truth - for which we would need to change the second sentence to  'I still hold the view that we are better to remain, however, the referendum result was clear...' 

But if Teresa May is equivocal, the hard-line Brexiteers take disingenuity to a new level.

They consistently refuse to answer the conceptual question of whether they would still support our leaving if there were an unambiguous cost to our prosperity?  Instead, they evade the point, replying that they don't believe this will happen, or worse, claiming the question is merely hypothetical!

Someone should tell them that all debate is hypothetical. Every manifesto is hypothetical; every policy proposal is hypothetical, as is every strategy and every claim about future outcomes.  Logically, hypotheticals take the form of 'If P then Q' - note the word 'if' at the start of that statement - politics is all about 'ifs'.

So let me pose what I believe to be the acid-tests of honesty for hard-liners on both sides.

To Brexiteers: "If  it were conclusively shown, to your full satisfaction, that Brexit would harm the UK's long term prosperity - then would you still support leaving the EU?'

And for Remainers: 'If  it were conclusively shown, to your full satisfaction, that Remaining would harm the UK's long term prosperity - then would you still support staying in the EU?'

A simple 'from the heart' answer to these questions would tell us more than all the experts could; more than any debate on the pros and cons of Canada plus or Norway squared - for it would transcend any technical analysis and get to the nub of their motivation.  We'd know more of who our representatives are and where they intellectually come from - which, in a void of facts, is a vital foundation of trust. That our system makes politicians so wary of answering these types of questions, is what lies behind our disillusion and scepticism.

But if they won't take that leap, we can at least ask these questions of ourselves - and by doing so, speak truth to power; maybe even set an example.

Here goes from me:

I'm a staunch Remainer; I support the European idea and believe our prosperity will suffer outside of the EU - furthermore I warm to the concept of a pan European democracy and don't share the desire for national determination that seems to be at the heart of much Brexiteer disdain for the EU.  Even if  I were convinced that we would be marginally better off by leaving, then I would still wish to remain - for I believe the European ideals of collective democracy, freedom and security are something worth paying for.  

That said, I am not blind to alternative outcomes.  If there was categorical evidence that we would be materially more prosperous outside of the EU (let's say with a 5% greater £GDP), then, of course, I'd support our leaving, albeit with a view to maintaining close ties wherever possible. My position is therefore one of principled pragmatism: I would have liked us to stay, even at some cost - but don't hold that view at any price.

There, that wasn't so hard, was it.

Any politicians want to follow me?