Creative Connecting: the Magic Bullet?

January 7, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Innovation, Social Economy 

“It’s almost as if there is this magic bullet that we all know about but [that is hard to] implement in public policy … the people around you completely condition how well you do in life, what you end up doing and how well you are feeling”

Gaia Marcus


On Saturday I was invited to speak to BBC Radio Bristol’s Dr Phil Hammond about the Social Mirror project we are currently piloting in Knowle West, Bristol, with our local partner, the Knowle west Media Centre. Social Mirror is a project in which people waiting in their GP’s surgery are invited to carry out a short survey on a tablet computer that ‘diagnoses’ their levels of wellbeing and personal connectivity, and that can suggest local community prescriptions if there is a need. These community prescriptions can be anything from walking groups to Tai Chi to Woodworking.

Not for the first time, I was asked why the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce would “be doing good work like this” quite so close to the coal face, and quite so practically. It is easy to think that hyper-local projects might be too ‘small’ to be of interest to an organisation with such international reach, but it is only through trialling out our innovations in the real world that we can allow them to take real roots.

As Adam Lent – the RSA’s Action and Research Centre Director – laid out yesterday, the RSA has hoisted a new flag: the power to Create. Adding a new ending to the French enlightenment refrain -  Liberté, Fraternité! Egalité! Créativité! – our interest in the power to create helps explain why an organisation such as the RSA might be interested in connecting isolated people in Bristol to activities in their area. As I explained to Doctor Hammond, social connections – who we know, who we rely on, who we  get our information from – are almost the magic bullet; a friendly elephant in the room that no-one quite knows how to operate.

The truth is that who you know massively influences who end up being, just as you influence all those around you. In our research with 3000 people in deprived areas in England, we found that people‘s social connections affected their life satisfaction and sense that what did they did in life was worthwhile. Indeed, those people who did not have people they felt close to or who did not have people that might give them small-scale, practical help or that did not have any connections in the local area, had both life satisfaction and feelings of life being worthwhile that were lower in statistically significant ways, independently of other factors.  For groups that might generally be at a wellbeing risk, for example older people or single parents, we often found that social support seemed a determining factor in their subjective wellbeing being either very positive or very negative.


If we are to open up the power to create – the ability to ‘act in ways that are unique to [your] own capacities or vision’ [in a] unique, pro-active and self-determined nature’ – then we need to start paying serious consideration to the effect of an individual’s social context on their understanding of their own capacities or vision. Like Sir Young’s originally satirical understanding of the term ‘meritocracy’, the power to create is not a phrase that we can accept uncritically, even as we welcome it into the arsenal of tools that we can use when seeking to help create the world we would like to live in.


Image by Josh C, taken from×735.jpg,


The perception of owning this power to create – the power to be an actor in your life and not merely a participant – is not as widely distributed as the ability to create is. People often need a push, a spark, a catalyst. The act of doing, of interacting, of creating implies some level of believing that you are worth it. By connecting people to others and activities in their local area, by helping them open that front door and get out there, we ultimately might be that spark.


“I can’t say enough about [the social mirror project] because it has changed my life… if I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have known about these walking groups. After I retired I felt like a recluse, three days a week I didn’t go out of the flat. I’ve now lost a stone in weight, I can talk to people quite freely which I didn’t before… I’ve stopped drinking alcohol -I don’t need it to help me sleep as the walks tire me out.”

  Social Mirror Project Participant



Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project, and leads the Social Mirror project.

You can find her on twitter: @la_gaia

Social Mirror has recently been featured on BBC Radio Bristol (at 1h :23 minutes) and on BBC Radio 4.


A Question of Confidence?

October 28, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

 “The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything…or nothing.” – Viscountess Nancy Astor, the first woman to be seated in the British Parliament

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the graduation ceremony for fifteen female entrepreneurs who had recently completed Make it Real – a business support programme for aspiring women run by The Centre of Excellence for Women’s Entrepreneurship (CEWE) at the University of East London. Held in the impressive surroundings of the Museum of Childhood amid a live market place which allowed the finalists to showcase their work, the event saw each winner congratulated with a cheque of £2,000 to grow their business.

The ceremony kicked off with a lively speech from Lisa Burger, Head of Customer Experience at easyJet. Lisa has been with the airline right from its entrepreneurial beginnings and she outlined how this has shaped her approach to life. During her speech she passed on many words of wisdom to the audience, but there was one thing in particular that stuck in my head:

Don’t be afraid to ask the question.”

Lisa Burger is a confident, successful woman but she was keen to relate to her (mostly female) audience and acknowledge the psychological barriers that often stop people from achieving – specifically, the fear of speaking out and being seen to be wrong.

So, honouring her request, here is the question I am slightly fearful of asking: are women inherently less confident than men when it comes to putting themselves forward and creating the career they newspaperreally want?

Are women hiding away?

I am not the only one to consider this question. Since the RSA set up its Catalyst fund, it has supported ventures lead by some inspirational women and many of these have focused specifically on helping other women. Dr Catherine Fieschi FRSA was inspired to set up her enterprise – 50 Foot Women, precisely because she happened to notice a worrying trend whilst recruiting for positions in her role as Director of Counterpoint.

 ”While male applicants were more inclined to over-emphasise their skills and ability, the women tended to under-sell them­selves -”

This direct experience was enough to merit the birth of 50 Foot Women, a mentoring scheme that she hoped would boost women’s confidence and their potential. Cooking with Mama is another Catalyst supported enterprise specifically targeting women. Set up by Jennifer Fong FRSA, the project offers cooking classes run by mothers who might otherwise be out of work or not have the confidence to return to work. The classes address both problems by employing and empowering at the same time.

Discovering a problem in your locality and working to address it is the essence of RSA Fellowship. When it comes to tackling inequality in the workplace, things are definitely changing and entrepreneurship is a big part of the equation. Unfortunately, the question of why there are less female CEOs is a highly politicised issue, and my worry is that this will lead many women (and men) who have great capacity to help, to steer clear of the problem altogether.

RSA Great Room Mural | Distribution of Premiums The lesson illustrated by our Fellows is that it pays to ask the question but not get too caught up in trying to solve the whole problem – instead, focus on what you can do, and who you can help, right now. Do not become overwhelmed by trying to change everything at once and risk changing nothing. It was not until 1928 that Viscountess Nancy Astor became the first women seated in British Parliament, yet the RSA has been offering woman a platform to participate in public life and improve society from its inception in 1754. This in turn influenced other societies to do the same and slowly, things changed.

The Fellowship continues this legacy by letting innovative people like Catherine and Jennifer change the landscape for women, one bit at a time.

If you’d like to find out more about the projects mentioned, or would like to apply for Fellowship then contact If there is someone you know who would make a great addition to the network then why not nominate them?

Alex Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA, @alexandrabarke1


Supporting Social Mobility

October 7, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

The South Central Region of the RSA are holding a series of events aimed at sharing ideas about education. These events are run by and for RSA Fellows with the aims of:

  • Sharing knowledge and ideas about education
  • Meeting and networking with other Fellows
  • Clarifying existing, and provoking new, ideas for potential projects
  • Sharing information on Catalyst funding which could potentially support the growth of the ideas.

On Thursday 12 September, at the Leadership and Training Centre at Shenley Brook End School, Tom Welch and Lesley King gave a presentation and led a discussion on the idea: Supporting Social Mobility.  This is a guest blog from Tom Welch.

Tom WelchOur talk for the RSA South Central Region’s Ideas in Education Series started from the premise that exam results are necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure social mobility.

The forty or so people who took part in the evening needed no encouragement to engage. So free-flowing was the conversation before the presentation proper, that we were considerably late starting, but all knew each other much better for it.

Only 23% of white boys on free school meals get five good GCSEs compared with 55% of all pupils.

We began with an examination of some previous research that we had carried out called Bucking the Trend – a study of white boys of British origin, eligible for free school meals who had gained 5 A* to C at GCSE or equivalent. This study aimed to give these academically successful students, a huge minority in their demographic, a voice that could be heard by educators – why did they think they had managed to buck the trend? How could schools learn from their experience of their nascent upwardly mobile journey?

The most pertinent finding for the purposes of the evening’s discussion, however, was that over 45 of the boys we interviewed had spoken, without prompting, of the social and psychological challenges of their social mobility. Their descriptions reminded us of Richard Hoggart’s ‘Uprooted and Anxious’ in The Uses of Literacy written some 50 years prior to the boys’ experiences.

The room entered into a lively discussion about how the challenges associated with social mobility, for the individual students themselves, could be ameliorated, while ensuring that the benefits of the rich experiences that are part of their journey could be accentuated and brought to the fore. 

How can we ensure that upwardly mobile students are not left floundering between two worlds, feeling uprooted and anxious?

There was a broad consensus that, while helping the most disadvantaged students academically is important, and can facilitate mobility after compulsory education ends, broader societal changes - particularly in terms of what we, as a society, value and aspire to - are necessary if we are ever to ease the passage of social mobility and move toward social justice.

I would be interested in discussing further, with attendees and Fellows, the challenges of social mobility – both facilitating it and the psychological challenges faced by the upwardly mobile students. How can we ensure that they are not left floundering between two worlds, feeling uprooted and anxious?

Tom Welch is Co-Director at EdYou.  You can contact him via email at or on Twitter at @tom_w_welch.

You can book now for upcoming events in the Ideas Education series:

17 October 2013: Ideas in Education: Conserving Creativity in Early Years, Reading

30 October 2013: Ideas in Education: Building Learning Power, Winchester

6 November 2013: Ideas in Education: Revolutionising access to science and research through technology, Portsmouth

14 November 2013: Ideas in Education: Planning Educational Spaces, Winchester

5 December 2013: Ideas in Education: DIY higher education in the global swamp? Oxford

To find out more contact Fellowship Councillor for South Central Bethan Michael.

Political geography bankrupted Detroit

July 19, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Yesterday Detroit became the largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy. The fate of public services for 700,000 residents is uncertain. The statistics we’ve read are horrific: the average police response time is 53 minutes, the city has shut half its parks since 2008, 38% of revenues went to servicing debt last year and 47% of properties didn’t pay their property tax bill. But as Neil McInroy wrote, “feeling the pain is not enough.  We need also a thorough analysis of the economic and socio-political forces which cause it.”

In recent years Detroit has led the dubious club of shrinking cities providing post-industrial ruin porn. The images of decay are mesmerising: promising a futuristic glimpse of what a city looks like when capitalism and government fail together. Most accounts assume Detroit’s problems stem from severe de-industrialisation. This is entirely insufficient. The root cause of this is administrative geography: growing suburban wealth has mirrored urban decline. American political geography and property-based tax collection colludes against Detroit: local authorities rely heavily on local property taxes, which are dependent on property values. The rich have literally bought into relatively small well-funded local administrations on the outskirts (see map below). Across the US, such enclaves can protected through “exclusionary zoning”, preventing low-income residents through ordnances which require minimum housing sizes and limits on land use density.


Let’s recap the story but ensure our geographical lens zooms out. Detroit was once metonym for the American car industry (“Motown”). Detroit attracted economic migrants rapidly between 1900 and 1930, including many African-Americans from southern states. Like other American cities, Detroit’s suburbs grew rapidly after World War Two, and mass ownership of cars made that possible. By 1956 the last streetcar line in a 500 mile networks was ripped up and Detroit pioneered the construction of motorways which carved through dense urban neighbourhoods. Those with jobs followed the relocation of companies to the suburbs. Many poor black people were left behind. Social challenges and physical decline have a long and painful history: the Army was deployed in riots which killed 43 in 1967. 80,000 people left the city in 1968.

Poverty by race Detroit 2010

Poverty by race Detroit 2010 (Source)

But in the Metro Detroit region today – the city including its suburbs and exurbs – lives 5.2 million residents spread over 6,000 square miles. The car industry is not dead, and is recovering from its 2009 bailout and still employs 130,000. Half a million people still work in manufacturing in the state of Michigan; many of these jobs are unionised, paying wages typically 75% above the state average. Other sectors are growing around Detroit – science, technology and finance – while one of America’s top universities sits 40 miles west of Detroit. Some companies have recently chosen to consolidate their offices in the city centre, but city residents have remained poor through the decades.

Metro Detroit highlights is the inability of America’s economy, government and social infrastructure to offer social-economic mobility. In the country where people believe most frequently that personal determination can overcome disadvantage, the poor more often than not remain poor through generations. They receive poor public services because their local government is poor. Incomes have stagnated as productivity growth hasn’t been distributed to workers through wages: the minimum wage is far below historical precedent.

Regional inequality is the crucial context for Detroit’s bankruptcy. In short, as the economic geography of Metro Detroit evolved, the geographical administration of government did not evolve with it. The localised nature of the tax base meant the city became stuck in a downward spiral.

One of the negative feedback loops in racialised poverty is the education system. Arguing that education policy and racism in the housing market conspired to segregate the region’s children by race and class, the NAACP won a legal case in 1971 forcing Detroit to form plans with it 53 metropolitan school districts to integrate student. In 1974, the Supreme Court overturned this on appeal by the State and suburban districts.

The physical environment has been blighted with abandoned buildings and subject to mass arson on Halloween: depressing the property market and further depressing Detroit city government tax revenue. Declining prices (50% between 2005 and 2011) mean residents complain their property is overvalued by tax officials and refuse to pay their taxes. The city witnesses a race between blight-fighting bulldozers performing urban excision and investors who seek to land-bank them for as little as $500.

The only big effort in the US to proactively pool tax revenues locally are the seven counties around Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Even here redistribution is limited to 40% of growth in commercial and industrial tax revenue, not residential property tax. There is a precedent for cities in the US to annex nearby land and expand, but state government must consent. Phoenix has doubled in territorial size since 1970, allowing a broader tax base and for the city to profit from rising land values on its rural outskirts. Generally, its been politically impossible to force affluent suburbanites to share tax revenue and expenditure decisions through joint metropolitan government which includes poorer neighbours in the inner city.

Political administrative geography matters greatly in economic development, financial management and social integration. In the UK local authorities are experimenting with cross-borough arrangements and policy and investment based on “functional economic areas”, while new unitary authority status creates challenges and opportunities. The bankruptcy of Detroit calls into question the scales to which our psychological associations extend. Detroit remains the heart of a dynamic city-region. It seems unlikely that lawyers and administrators will be able to draw on that wider wealth in the resuscitation efforts.

Economicon: Why global economics is child’s play.

July 17, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Guest Post by Karim Secker.

A new project by the Equality Trust aims to ask some important questions of the game-theory model of economics. The project, called Economicon, is part of an ESRC initiative to develop educational tools focusing on inequality for 16-19 year olds.

There is no shortage of games that model themselves on complex real-life problems like economics, or politics, or warfare. From some of the oldest known games like chess and morabara (an elegant and complex African boardgame about herding cows efficiently dating from around 800AD), through modern boardgame classics like Risk, Monopoly and Settlers of Catan, right the way up to some of the more epic contributions of the computer game era like the Civilisation series (which let you nurture an entire civilization all the way from inventing sharpened sticks up to space travel), games about the fundamental rules of human society appear across cultures and throughout history.

Whether they use pebbles or pixels and are passed on through word-of-mouth or fibre-optics, what these games all have in common is that they try to capture the strategy and conflict of real-world, large-scale problems in all their staggering complexity using nothing but a set of abstract rules.

 Believe it or not, game theory and the minimax mathematical equation on which it is based are this year celebrating their 300th anniversary. And that may be a problem. Three centuries on, it is still the basis of most modern economic thinking. 

Games are so deeply ingrained in how we think and learn about complex human interactions it is perhaps not surprising that economists trying to devise a science of financial decision-making decided to name it ‘game theory’. Believe it or not, game theory and the minimax mathematical equation on which it is based are this year celebrating their 300th anniversary.

And that may be a problem. Three centuries on, it is still the basis of most modern economic thinking. And it is, at best, a paradox. Game theory’s most famous example, the prisoner’s dilemma, describes two captured bank robbers faced with a choice between ratting the other out for a better chance at their own freedom, or staying silent and trusting their partner. And unfortunately for theoretical criminals everywhere, the logical thing for both bank robbers to do is to rat out the other. Which of course will land both of them in prison, eyeing each other over soggy porridge for the next ten to fifteen.

Being logical, according to game theory, makes you lose.

Of course, this changes if you play the same person more than once, meaning you need them to trust you next time. But is this good enough? In our own society, we often have to trust people we may never see again, or that we never see at all. Where do morals fit in? Reputations? Social responsibility? Community?

There is something missing from the game theory model of society, and not just at an emotional or ideological level. In a real world prisoner’s dilemma, even if you win and walk free, your incarcerated ex-partner in crime may well have friends and family who will have something to say about it. They may well know where you live.

Game theory is based on the assumption that each interaction happens in a vacuum, and that once it is finished, there are no other consequences to deal with. Perhaps this is why economists are so bad at predicting and planning for the future, such as insisting on austerity policies that irrevocably damage the health and education levels of the coming generation, or arguing that promoting economic growth is more important than dealing with climate change when even a small environmental crisis will bring with it the mother of all recessions. What the game-theory model of society misses out is, well, the society.

What the game-theory model of society misses out is, well, the society.

A new project by the Equality Trust aims to ask some important questions of the game-theory model of economics. The project, called Economicon, is part of an ESRC initiative to develop educational tools focusing on inequality for 16-19 year olds.

Economicon is a computer game that lets small groups of players model real economies. It lets you play with society-wide factors like inequality, tax and anonymity and then see how these shape the decisions of the individuals within those societies. It offers players similar choices to the prisoner’s dilemma, but crucially, it is for more than two players, allowing students and researchers to better understand how societies work and how co-operation happens, or why it fails to.

Modern economics has been accused, with some justification, of being an ideology masquerading as a science, as putting mathematics before real people, and treating us all as nothing more than logical, gain-maximising automatons. Well it may just turn out that not just the attitude but also the mathematics of modern economics are due an upgrade.

Maybe we need a mathematical model that can account for the effects of an interested third party, or a fourth, or a seven point something billionth, and maybe, just maybe this will start to look a little more like the way actual humans do things.

So, is it time we expanded our economic model to allow for the effects of society? Or rather; what type of game do we want to be playing?

Bursting the Twitter bubble

April 17, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…

Image via
Image via

Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’  She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.

I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.

Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.

Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.

I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.

On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.

In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?

My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about  professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.

They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice

I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.

But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.

Communities: The omitted third dimension?

April 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

Here is an interesting Guardian piece on a transnational YouGov-Cambridge study. The research compared attitudes towards responsibilities of the state versus those of individuals in the UK, US, France and Germany.

To summarise, when it comes to the role of the state on issues like ‘a decent minimum income for all’ or ‘helping poor children get ahead’, British views are significantly more continental than atlantic. With the exception of company pay – on inequity of salaries, Britons are more liberal than Germans and French, if not as liberal as Americans – the results put the US on the individualist side, and UK, Germany and France broadly on the statist side; which highlights once again that the conversation on public services in the US is a very different one to this side of the pond.

What is just as interesting as the results, however, is the way the study is structured. It takes a classic two-dimensional approach: state versus individuals.

What about views on the responsibility of, and for, communities?

They are a pillar of social power just as much as the other two dimensions. And given fiscal pressures on both sides of the Atlantic, an increasing amount of challenges will need to be dealt with via this ‘third dimension’ (e.g., as my colleague Matthew Parsfield pointed out recently, in Mental Health, or as our CEO Matthew Taylor has argued, in Care).

But as so often, communities get left out of the equation – what statisticians would call an omitted variable. Arguably, without taking this third dimension into account, there is a lack of depth in the insights generated.

My hunch is that we would see a picture emerge that is more complex and informative than the binary US/Europe divide. But perhaps there is already some comparative data out there, maybe even longitudinal – might a reader point me in the right direction?

The RSA is well positioned to work across all three dimensions internationally, as we have strong Fellowships in all four countries (altogether we have Fellowships in 101 countries, the US being the largest one with almost 800 Fellows), as well as Fellow- and staff-led projects in the US and Germany. I will elaborate on these in my next blog posts.

Also, I am looking forward to the upcoming RSA Lecture with Tim Smit, CEO and Founder of the Eden Project, who asks the very question:  ‘Where does responsibility for community lie’?

The richest 3 hundred people in the world are as wealthy as the bottom 3 billion

April 11, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I just watched a Flabbergastingly good four minute video, written, directed and narrated by LSE’s Jason Hickel and wanted to share my reaction immediately.

Global wealth inequality matters for all sorts of reasons- economic, social, environmental and political, so it worth taking the scale of this issue fully on board. The video is full of great graphs, striking statistics and vivid visuals. From reliable UN sources, statistics like the following are beautifully illustrated:

  • The richest 2% have more wealth than half of the rest of the world.
  • The world’s total wealth is about 223 trillion US dollars.
  • The richest 1% have 43% of world’s wealth.
  • The bottom 80% have just 6% of world’s wealth.
  • The richest 300 people on earth have the same wealth as the poorest 3 billion (3,000,000,000).
  • Enjoy the video!

the richest 300 people on earth have the same wealth as the poorest 3 billion (3,000,000,000).


Disabled? Say hello to hard times

April 8, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Recovery, Social Brain 

Today marks the beginning of the end of Disability Living Allowance. As of now, new applicants in the North East and North West will be assessed for the coalition government’s replacement for the non-means tested benefit, the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Anyone whose award is up for review will go through the PIP assessment process, and the plan is that by 2018, more than 400,000 people who currently get DLA will not get PIP. This means that around 20% of people who currently receive DLA will lose the benefit all together.

Image via

Image via

The narratives attached to the need for welfare reform and benefits cuts are powerful, and the government has done a reasonably good job of convincing the nation that it is essential to reduce spending on welfare if our economy is to recover. The particular focus on disabled people, and DLA especially plays into our distaste at the idea of anyone languishing on a ‘lifetime’ benefit with no checks to see if they continue to be disabled ‘enough’ to deserve it.

DLA is also ripe for being framed as unpalatable because of the fact that it isn’t means-tested. It makes no difference if you are a banker, barrister or a barista, your right to claim DLA remains the same. This was designed to reflect the fact that being disabled is expensive, whether you have a visible, physical disability like multiple sclerosis, an invisible, chronic condition like lupus, or an intermittent, unpredictable illness like schizophrenia. In any of these cases, and regardless of a person’s income, DLA can make the difference between being able to work or not, eat properly or not, get around or not.

It makes no difference if you are a banker, barrister or a barista, your right to claim DLA remains the same.

This excellent personal account shows how DLA has made it possible for Mark Harper to continue working and illustrates the many small ways in which it enables him to have a better quality of life in spite of living with a painful neurological condition. As Mark points out, the obsession with employment as the panacea for all our nation’s economic ills is actually undermined by removing the sorts of benefits that make it possible for some people with disabilities to work at all.

DLA certainly wasn’t perfect, and the one-size-fits-all approach to assessing disability has always been ludicrously inflexible. For example, one of the measures of disability the distance a person can walk. Under the old DLA structure, 50 metres was the crucial distance that determined whether or not a person was eligible for the higher rate of mobility allowance. The PIP framework is more than halving this to 20 metres, and there’s plenty to say about the arbitrariness of this heavy handed and unfair change, but to focus on that would overlook the ridiculousness of using the ability to walk a certain distance as a key way of assessing a person’s mobility.

There are many serious physical disabilities which don’t affect one’s ability to walk. There are many disabilities which threaten people’s mobility even though they might be assessed as being physically the same as a non-disabled person. For someone with a learning disability, for example, being able to get around the world safely is not necessarily about moving one leg in front of the other so much as understanding dangers posed by traffic, navigating confusing routes through cities, and social vulnerability. What about a person with agoraphobia or extreme depression?

The transition from DLA to PIP is happening in phases, so those who were once promised ‘lifetime’ DLA support, or who are in the middle of a fixed term award have another couple of year’s grace before the major changes kick in, unless they experience a change in their disability. But the process has begun, there is no stopping it, and hundreds of thousands of disabled people are fearful for their futures because of it.


A high employment-low wage society: a deal with the devil?

February 22, 2013 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

And so the ‘productivity puzzle’ continues. Earlier this week the ONS published new figures showing that employment rose by 154,000 in the last quarter of 2012, taking up the total increase over the year as a whole to half a million. This is despite growing expectations that Britain will slide back into recession for the third time since the economic downturn. Indeed, the size of the economy in the last quarter was the same as it was a year beforehand. So what’s going on?

Up until fairly recently, most commentators have put the low growth-high employment phenomenon down to the increasing number of part-time positions made available, at the expense of full-time ones. The argument runs that the number of people in work may not have fell so sharply as expected, but the number of hours worked certainly will have done. This may have been true at the outset of the recession, but the latest tranche of ONS figures now seems to contradict this claim. The number of full-time workers increased by 197,000 in the last quarter, whereas the number of part-time ones fell by 43,000.

The real reason why employment rates have remained so buoyant is rather down to a squeeze on wages, particularly for those in lower skilled jobs. Average earnings have risen by only 1.3 per cent since a year ago, whereas inflation is more than double this. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, for instance, reported that in the 3 years leading up to 2010-11, average household income (pre-tax and benefit) fell by 7 per cent in real terms. Wages now only represent 53 per cent of GDP, down from 65 per cent in the mid-1970s.

This begs the question of whether low wages are a price worth paying for low unemployment. Or to put it a different way, can we live with inequality, if it means having more people in work? Speaking yesterday at the RSA, the economist and author Stuart Lansley reported that this is exactly the trade-off that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair contemplated during their time in office in the late 90s. Either they were to create high-skilled economies and societies based on efficiency, or they deregulate, pare back the state and settle for a highly competitive market economy grounded in flexible labour (with inevitable by-product of inequality). The rest is history.

While some may view this as a necessary deal with the devil, in reality it is no such deal at all. The benefits have been revealed as a myth, the silver linings of inequality as an illusion. Take poverty, for instance. As a result of the squeeze on wages, it is now the case that there are more children in poverty who are living in working households than there are living in workless ones. The damage being inflicted on families was masked throughout the early 2000s by an increasing reliance on credit. The consequence is that now something like a third of family income among low earners is spent on debt repayment.

As Lansley pointed out yesterday, this is not just bad for the individuals directly concerned, it is also for the wider economy. Demand contracts, the economy grinds to a halt, and we ‘lose’ a decade or more of prosperity through stasis. Moreover, the inequality created by low skilled, low wage jobs induces societal fragmentation, distrust and intermittent bursts of anger from the most dispossessed.

So what is the way forward? High quality jobs that pay a decent wage is a good starting point. For those who say that businesses can ill afford it, the Resolution Foundation has argued persuasively that average wage bills for the larger companies would increase by only a few per cent. By implementing a system along the lines of the Living Wage, they may even benefit by way of increased productivity and retention rates. Indeed, this is the rationale for the ‘Living Wage City Deals’ being proposed by some.

Yet we have to do more than just fiddle with wages. We need a root and branch rethink about the kind of society we want to live in, and the type of economy and workforce we want to build. Some like Will Hutton, for instance, have mooted the idea that we should follow a model of ‘flexicurity’, whereby flexibility for employers is matched with high quality jobs that are backed by a strong system of education and welfare protection. Labour’s announcement today that they are considering implementing a ‘contributory principle’ for unemployment benefits suggests this is finally being taken seriously.

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