Friday, 7 November 2014

What a hedgehog knows

When, in 1948, Mikhail Naimy  wrote “The more elaborate his labyrinths, the further from the Sun his face” he was already living in a world that was being over-run by complexity.  Most of the greatest insights in art and science since the end of the Second World War have been conceived in a dense soup of analysis.  There will no more be simple insights that change the world – mastering the complexity is everything.  The keen amateur who is able to think freely and creatively is no longer taken seriously;  the potting shed had been replaced by the data centre such is the explosion of data and variables required to understand the problems we face. We are living in the age of the Fox (who knows many small things).
This up-tick in complexity is obvious in the world of macro-economics as the simple relationships between money, prices, capacity and rates of interest no longer seem to work.  Also old certainties about productivity and wealth have been debunked – this is an uncomfortable world for the Hedgehog – (who only knows one big thing).  Obvious problems create resolutions that can be faced with bravery, although tactics may vary we can unite behind a shared vision or oppose it full on.   If the problem is too complex to articulate then there will be no solution only a vacuum.

Where are the hedgehogs

Mrs Thatcher’s plan to restore the UK’s productivity and competitiveness in the 80ies was “hedgehogesque”, we may not have enjoyed the process and it certainly divided the nation, but at least the approach was clear, no one was being deceived by the complexity.  This honesty in execution made for a simple political narrative – you were either for or against and this polarisation was the key ingredient for her success.  She was able to mobilise a “moral majority” against the vested interests of trade unions and state owned corporations to reshape our economy in five short but painful years.  Clement Attlee was able to mobilise a different “moral majority” in 1948 when he, with breath taking efficiency, created the welfare state.  Both of these politicians simplified the message and gained the high ground for long enough to make a difference – they both had to tackle a mass of complexity but all the public could see was a hedgehog.

The danger for today’s policy makers is that in large parts of the developed world most people hanker for the simplicity but those in power have been unable to articulate the how we resolve the complexities that we face.  This loss of communication and trust between policy makers and their “moral majority” has created a dangerous vacuum where new hedgehogs appear that have no need for a “moral majority” they just need a majority.  So in the UK we have the rise of distasteful and small minded parties like UKIP and the SNP who gnaw away at frailties and insecurities, creating a destructive nationalism based on a false interpretation of history.  This narrowing of and hardening of attitudes is now a widespread phenomenon across Europe and in the US, where the recent mid-term election have returned an unusually large number of unreconstructed hedgehogs from the backwoods.

In the UK there are exactly seven months to go before the next election – just enough time for someone to stand up and articulate an alternative narrative.  Our problems in the UK are not caused by immigrants and bureaucrats in Brussels, they come from our inability to afford the standard of living we aspire to.  This gap between actual productivity and current living standards has created huge debts and can only be resolved by in two ways – further austerity or inflation to reduce living standards or a huge increase in private investment to drive productivity.

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