Public Participation at the BBC

The Media Show on Radio 4 ran an interview last week with the BBC’s outgoing head of strategy, John Tate.

Tate says that ‘the public can play a greater role in running the BBC. Ways to find concrete expression to that should be part of the debate to come’.

He is interviewed from about 6 mins 30 in. It’s worth listening to what he says in full.

Tate is giving a TEDx talk in Oxford on Sunday. I am curious to know what else he says about public participation in the governance of the BBC.

Personally I don’t think it will work because they’ll just want stories about Rihanna.

Much better to leave oversight to elected politicians who, as elected representatives in a heavily mediated system, have no conflicts of interest in matters of, um, media representation.

Praise for The Finance Curse

“Nicholas  Shaxson wrote Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World (London: 2011), He is the author, with John Christensen, of The Finance Curse: How Oversized Financial Sectors Attack Democracy and Corrupt Economies. This is a wonderful piece of work which, inter alia, critiques in great detail the various claims made about the significance of the financial services sector to the British economy and examines the negative effects for the rest of us of having what is essentially an unregulated global casino in our midst. That this country is now set on a course of absolute decline is largely down to the City’s dominance of the economic conversation in the country since the 1970s (and the gullibility of the politicians who believed what they were told).”

Robin Ramsay, editor, Lobster Magazine

Superstition and Mystery are Useful, Part 2

A while back I posted a note from Bertrand Russell about the mythical thinking that bedevils the public understanding of finance. Very few people learn about economics, despite its universal relevance in an industrialised society. Those who do tend to learn a version that glorifies the economic status quo. Russell speculated that the subject is so little understood because ‘superstition and mystery are useful to the holders of financial power’.

Recently I happened across a remark from Paul Samuelson that gives confirmation of a sort to Russell’s speculation. Samuelson is one of the most influential figures in postwar economics. He was the first American winner of the Nobel Prize and his textbook Economics: An Introductory Analysis is the bestselling title in the discipline. Most people who know about Keynes, for example, know what Samuelson told them in Economics.

In an interview for a film about Keynes, Samuelson is quite frank about the need for superstition and mystery:

I think there is an element of truth in the view that the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times [is necessary]. Once it is debunked [that] takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that the long-run civilized life requires. We have taken away a belief in the intrinsic necessity of balancing the budget if not in every year, [then] in every short period of time. If Prime Minister Gladstone came back to life he would say ‘uh, oh what you have done’ and James Buchanan argues in those terms. I have to say that I see merit in that view.

Quoted in L. Randall Wray, Modern Money Theory (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2012), p.200

Samuelson frames the need for superstition in terms of the threat from ‘anarchistic chaos and inefficiency’ that would break out if people realised that you didn’t have maintain ‘discipline in the allocation of resources’. In this view the citizen body is a child that cannot reason for itself and must be kept in line with useful lies of various kinds – tidy your room or the monster under the bed will get you, balance the budget or the bond vigilantes will get you.

Since Samuelson made those remarks in 1995 the old time religious conviction that budgets have to balance has been largely rehabilitated. Politicians spend a lot of time telling us that there’s no more money, that we have to tighten our belts, and so on.

Of course there are limits on the amount of currency a state can sensibly issue. But as Ann Pettifor points out in Just Money, we can afford what we can do. We could do a lot more than we are currently doing  but we are hampered by various misconceptions and finance and money. If we are capable of reason then we won’t behave like children in an ice cream parlour, but like citizens in a democracy. There won’t be anarchistic chaos, there’ll be substantial public control over the economy through decisions about the allocation of credit.

No wonder superstition and mystery are proving so persistent.

Ann Pettifor’s new book, Just Money: How Society Can Break the Despotic Power of Finance, published this week by my imprint Commonwealth, sets out to demolish the myths that surround and protect the current monetary-political settlement. It is available on Kindle and via Paypal from the Prime Economics website.

Just Money – Ann Pettifor

Readers of this blog will know that I have long been fascinated by the nature of money – where it comes from, who controls it, what it is exactly. It is a subject that most of us recoil from. There are good reasons for doing so. Orthodox liberal economics and many of their critics have agreed that there is no mystery to money, and that to think there is is a kind of “money fetishism”. But the financial crisis and the response of central banks has alerted us to the fact that money is a good more consequential and mysterious than we have been led to believe.

My imprint Commonwealth today publishes Just Money: How Society Can Break the Despotic Power of Finance. In it Ann Pettifor explains how the monetary system works and why it matters. Pettifor is one of the very few economists to have seen the financial crisis coming and her prescience derived in part from her willingness to follow the evidence about money and money creation. Now she explains the monetary system to non-expert readers and explains how control of money has been taken away from democratic institutions and vested in the commercial banks. Re-regulation is possible, but it will require that we all give up some comforting superstitions about money.

Just Money is available on Kindle at £2.99, or thereabouts, depending where you are in the world.

You can also now buy the book from the Prime Economics website via Paypal.

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The Media and the Constitution Revisited

My latest for Al Jazeera -

“The organisation of the media is a constitutional matter, in the sense that the particular patterns of attention and inattention determine how the institutions of government function. As such the media help determine who gets what, and who gets away with what. New technology arrives in a media industry that is already embedded in a system of threats and incentives underpinned by law and customary practice.”

Mass Surveillance and the Constitutional Order

This article, by Anthony Barnett, powerfully makes the case for framing British torpor about mass surveillance in terms of the country’s decaying constitutional settlement and the state’s subordination to Washington:

… we have seen an erosion of the old, informal constitutional culture around belief in British institutions. Instead of being replaced by a democratic culture this has permitted a politics of liberty that has become grossly individualized.

The apparent lack of interest in deep reform in Britain is very puzzling to me, given the real-world consequences of the uncodified lash-up we have now. Bankocracy is a form of the state. If you don’t want to work for bankers, then you want to reform the constitution.

Perhaps there is much more appetite for this than is reflected in the BBC-Murdoch complex.

An Intelligible Model of Ambition

“Every stable society rests on a shared view of the world – a way of looking at things which makes it possible to have settled expectations and which provides channels for both cooperation and peaceful conflict. Without such shared beliefs, no intelligible model of ambition is provided for the members of a society. They are thrown into the world merely with fragments of identity. Lacking a viewpoint or core of identity, they find it difficult to pursue any consistent course in life.

Has British society latterly provided its members with such a viewpoint? I think not. Whereas other European societies have in the last two centuries formally adhered to liberal principles, set out in written constitutions, British society has continued to seek unity in manners rather than ideas. It has discouraged discussion of ideology, preferring to rely on civility as the cement of society.”

Larry Siedentop, Democracy in Europe