What We Owe Each Other, by Minouche Shafik

Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics
Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics

There is much to celebrate in Minouche Shafik’s argument that we need a new social contract[1], not least a title that uses the language of obligation and duty rather than employing the language of rights.  This is even if she falls back, in her closing remarks, on answering her question of what it is that we owe to each, that it is “to muster the courage and sense of unity” that the Beveridge Report said was necessary for the “winning” of “freedom and want”.  I was looking for more, and shouldn’t be too critical her effort at a rallying cry to round off the book when she has addressed a variety of policy measures, without being unduly prescriptive about their precise form, that would address “our interdependencies, provide minimum protections to all, share some risks collectively and ask everyone to contribute as much as they can for as long as they can….investing in people and building a new system of risk sharing to increase our overall well-being”.

Shafik’s underlying argument is that we need a new social contract to meet the needs and opportunities facing both individual society and global society in the 21st century, including those of an environment threatened by global warming and the degradation from human activity, of an ageing population, of an inequity between generations, and of the alienation of communities left as others have prospered that as consequence poses a threat the liberal democracy.  She is qualified for this task by her  personal history which includes an affluent childhood in Egypt that exposed her to third world poverty around her before her family emigrated to the USA, a career largely “in the trenches of policymaking” spanning international institutions and in the central government and central banking in the UK, and finally her current appointment as Director of the London School of Economics in 2017 where she launched a programme of research, ‘Beveridge 2.00’, to rethink the welfare state.

Having spent many years in healthcare and the application of health economics, I felt initially that her chapter on health was skated over too much.  But this was before I reflected that the chapters outside my own area of knowledge were throwing me snippets of valuable information and new insights that left me with respect for the ambition within her 189 very readable pages (Thomas Piketty could learn a thing or two from Minouche Shafik!).  Plenty of the examples in this book are familiar, such as the marshmallow test, but others cited, such as the evidence of the value of quite modest investment in early years intervention, such as weekly hour-long visits by Jamaican community health workers for 2 years to encourage mothers to interact and play with their children to develop cognitive and personality skills that 20 years later yielded 42% higher earnings than the control group.

Shafik sensibly avoids too many narrowly defined prescriptions, reflecting on data presented in the book that different countries have successful applied different policy solutions (for example in how they fund and organise healthcare) to achieve broadly similar outcomes (even if the one nation in the case of healthcare that doesn’t do this in a coherent way – the United States – ends up spending far more in aggregate, and in terms of public money, than everywhere else only to realise worse outcomes).  However, the general thrust of her argument in each area of policy is clear.

Shafik poses interesting questions around the intergenerational social contract.  On one hand, younger generations are blessed with material well-being that the old generations could not have dreamt off.  On the other hand, as David Willetts documented in the The Pinch[2]the millennials and generation Z have good reason to be aggrieved as they pay for the higher education and the home ownership enjoyed by their parents appears out of reach.  Shafik recognises, in the emphasis that she places on investment in education in new social contract and various mechanisms for achieving this that she suggests.  There is also the issue of the price that they and future generations will pay in terms of the environmental degradation resulting from the previous generations’ approach to achieving their wellbeing and economic growth.  I am surprised at the complexity that she builds in to potential solutions to this when the solution should lie in regulation, a national income calculus that better reflects the value of the natural world that currently calculated GDP or national income, and environmentally based taxes that capture the externalities of industrial and agricultural activity that damages the environment.

The book also gives rise to a set of interesting questions about what this means for businesses.  Where do they sit within this narrative?  There are important lessons for the people who sit at the heart of businesses, the “controlling minds” in terms what they can do, both in relation to their own workforces, customers and suppliers, in terms of contribution to a new social contract.  For the business to thrive, and sustain itself in the long term, the core lesson is that it should be a player, alongside the individual citizen, in such a new social contract.  Otherwise, its profitability and in due course its survival will be undermined by the very same pressures the Shafik describes threatening both individuals and liberal democracy.

I have a fear about one element in the approach Shafik takes to the need for a new social contract.  This relates to what goes into the “increase in our overall well-being”.   Some of the steam that is driving populism is increasing material inequality and the sense that communities are being “left behind”.  Some of this populism is a function of identity politics, which may be whipped up by the perception that communities with other identities (often, but not exclusively, framed by other ethnicities or immigrant groups) are posing an economic threat or gain an advantage.  But the perception may nothing to do with actual material wellbeing.  Indeed, in the case of some of the 52% of the British population voting for Brexit, or the potential majority in Scotland for independence from the UK, this may be a desire to escape from or avoid the “other” despite the prospect that of material disadvantage.  Some may be seduced by arguments that “getting back control” will leave them better off materially, but many others take the view that independence from Europe or the UK is more important than the economic benefit of remaining part of the whole.  There is, at least at an abstract level, a link between the communitarian spirit in Shafik’s argument for a social contract “that addresses our interdependencies” and the desire to be part of a union, whether of states sharing a continent or Kingdoms sharing a small archipelago at the continent’s north western edge.  Those same people who resist the membership of the country they occupy in a union of countries are also likely to be those most resistant to her arguments for a renewed social contract.

[1] Shafik, Minouche (2021). What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract. ISBN 978-1847926272.

[2] Willetts, David (2010). The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back. ISBN 978-1848872318.

Applying the Escdondido Framework to Dark Ages Britain

The First Kingdom cover

I often wonder about the applicability of the Escondido Framework model of the firm to organisations in other cultures and at other times to the developed world in the 21st century .  One of the claims of the Escondido Framework is the degree to which it can be applied universally.  Certainly, the model can be applied to public sector and third sector organisations, and can be applied wherever there is some sort of corporate collective structure that can be shown to create value that is greater than the sum of the efforts of the people who are working together within the structure if they were together in a set of discrete collaborations brought about by a set of separate agreements (whether explicit or implicit).

I have just completed reading Max Adams’ account of Britain in the 5th to 7th centuries, The First Kingdom[1].  This covers the period often known as the Dark Ages, following the departure of the Roman Empire and before settled control of England by Anglo-Saxon rulers in the Heptarchy.  He pieces together the considerable research undertaken in recent years to describe a fragmentation of society, depopulation of most cities and towns and replacement by what may in many respects to a pre-Roman pattern of village economies and local tribal leadership, subject to incursions by Viking and north German raiding parties, but still with some loose links to continental Europe, with the Christianity that had arrived in the Roman period hanging on in places prior to reintroduction both from Ireland with Colme Cille (St Columba) and with St Augustine from Rome, and with continuing trade.

One of the key themes of the Escondido Framework is the identity of the corporation independent of stakeholders, the “societé anonyme” whose ultimate purpose is to survive, and which outlives its “controlling mind”.  Adams marks the end of the period that he is describing by an important transition, from one in which the individual “kingdoms” were pretty fluid, some very small and sitting within and subject to other kingdoms (in a system described as Tribal Hidage), and most regimes pretty ephemeral.

“Victory on the battlefield and political success measured in tribute and booty secured the loyalty of secular élites for their king and his eligible successors; but for a life interest only.  Defeat, if not fatal, weakened a king and exposed him to internal coup of external domination…..The luck of the tribe was invested so heavily in the person of its kings that when they died any imperium that they may have exercised over rival kings was void.

“As Bede so vividly described it, the pagan supernatural experience was in some sense like the passing of a sparrow into and out of a hall whose warmth and fellowship matched their brief period of Earth while all before and after was cold darkness unknown…..

“Pagan kingship was not stupidly irrational.  Rulers were bound by conventions of honour, reciprocity and political pragmatism.  They calculated odds as coolly – and with about as much reliance on superstition – as any politician or football coach whose tenure might be equally precarious.”[2]

But this changes with a new social contract, between church and king, that reflects the new world being constructed with the arrival of Christianity and the conversion of the rulers, whose souls continue after death.  Adams cites a law of Wihtred, king of Kent 690 -725: “The Church shall enjoy immunity from taxation; and the king shall be prayed for”  before noting:

“The rapid seventh-century establishment of monastic communities across the Insular kingdoms, supported by extensive, formerly royal estates and nurture by their relations with kings, parallels the history of secular territorial lordship founder on the right to exact and collect renders from lands and communities, but with a a critical difference.  The unique brilliance of this new social contract was to convert landed assets otherwise held for a mere life interest – the so-called folcland held by the thegns and gesiths form the king, which returned to the royal portfolio on their death – into a freehold bocland of abbots and abbesses.  Bocland or bookland – what we would call freehold – was fundamental to a relationship meant to last for eternity on Earth and in heaven.  It allowed the church to invest in physical labour and material wealth in permanent settlements free from the obligation of military service and taxation; to capitalize agriculture an technology.  It laid the foundations for a literate, institutional clerical caste and formation concepts of obligations owed by kings to their people.”

Permanence is the key word – even if in due course the success of the monastic corporations became the seed of their undoing at the Reformation.  The monastery or convent was greater than the abbot or abbess.  The kingdom also secured more permanence, even if an institutional fluidity remained  until the major kingdoms of the Heptarchy progressively consolidate and became on under Athelstan in the 10th century.

[1] Adams, Max (2021). The First Kingdom: Britain in the Age of Arthur. ISBN-13 : 978-1788543477

[2] Ibid. pp 398 -399.

Lockdown reading: Piketty’s Capitalism and Ideology

The Year of Revolution - a clash of ideology Chartists meet on Kennington Common in 1848
Chartists meet on Kennington Common in 1848 – the year of the Communist Manifesto and “All things bright and beautiful”

I went into the first Covid-19 lockdown in March with three doorstep sized volumes to keep me going.

The 912 pages of Hilary Mantel’s Mirror and the Light were riveting, even if I knew from the outset that Thomas Cromwell’s career would come to an abrupt end at Tower Hill in 1540. The 1088 pages of David Abulafia’s magisterial The Boundless Sea kept me entertained as it opened my eyes, chapter by chapter, to the way that different parts of the world became progressively connected by maritime exploration, communication and trade.

I had started turning the 1041 pages of Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology before restrictions started to be lifted in May but, despite finding some stimulating ideas in his opening account of the different sources of power of different parts of premodern society (which he describes as ternary or trifunctional, and have echoes in the Escondido Framework’s account of  the three currencies or sanctions), it was not until the re-imposition of lockdown (the UK government’s Tier 4 restrictions) that I finally completed it.

I admire much of what Piketty has done in Capital and Ideology.  His effort to document the movements in the shares of income and wealth between different groups in different societies throughout human history, and particularly the past century or so, is admirable and revealing.  It is possible to challenge some of his assumptions and definitions, but the picture he paints of the direction of the trends in material inequality are compelling.  I agree with his spin on Rawls’s maximin principle: “To the extent that income and wealth inequalities are the result of different aspirations and distinct life choices or permit improvement in the standards of living and expansion of the opportunities available to the disadvantaged, they may be considered just.”  (p.968).  His chapters on the increasing support of the “Brahmin” classes educated to degree level for parties of the left and the corresponding “Nativist” alignment of parties of the traditional right and “left-behind” communities are persuasive. But the book is far longer than it needs to be, many of its graphs add little, and he strays from the professorial scholarship of the economist/social scientist-turned-historian into an undergraduate level of prescription.

Piketty’s underlying thesis is that “no human society can live without an ideology can live without an ideology to make sense of its inequalities.”  I didn’t need to read 1041 pages to recognise this: growing up in a churchgoing family, I remember singing the third verse of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

These days, it is generally omitted!

It may or not be a coincidence that Mrs Cecil F Alexander wrote these words in 1848, the “Year of Revolutions”, in which Marx and Engels also wrote The Communist Manifesto.  Piketty chooses to reformulate the opening words of its first chapter “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” as “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of the struggle of ideologies and the quest for justice.”

There is something in Piketty’s thesis about the relationship between the ideas that prevail at any point in time and the organisation of society and its impact on the distribution of wealth and income.  It may be that I started out as a historian whereas has come to history by way of economics, but I find that he oversimplifies to sustain his argument.  Ideas ebb and flow and they can influence behaviours, but this is not the same thing as saying that they determine behaviours.  He falls into the trap of assuming that the behaviours that are generally ascribed to “capitalism” are the product of the past few centuries.

He frequently quotes Karl Polanyi with approval, who was even more blinkered in this respect, regarding capitalism as an entirely modern phenomenon.  Peter Acton has undermined Moses Finlay’s thesis that the ancient economy was shaped by considerations of status and civic ideology rather than rational economic considerations, demonstrating in Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens demonstrates that the commercial decisions of Athenians “were for the most part…consistent with today’s understanding of good (rational, profit-maximising) business practice[1]. It does not require a 21st century reading of the biblical parable of the talents to see that the notion of investing for a return was established by the time the Christian gospels were written.  And Abulafia’s The Boundless Sea, contains plenty of evidence for the commercial underpinning of the development of maritime trade over many centuries.  One of the primary shortcomings in Polanyi’s approach was that set very specific conditions around anything that he would define as a market and, by framing his argument in this way, created a platform for his dismissal of the longstanding heritage of commercial activity.  It is as though Polanyi, and to a lesser extent Piketty, seek to dismiss market mechanisms and their place in human societies on the basis that, prior to Adam Smith and his successor, the conditions assumed in classical economics had neither been articulated nor did they prevail.

Essentially, it is not that Piketty is wrong, but his case is overstated and needs reframing.  It is not that ideology determines the form of economic organisation, but it helps shape relationship between the parties.  In Escondido Framework terms, the prevailing ideological frameworks will influence the attitudes and trade-offs made by parties in their relationships with each other at market interfaces.  For example, a religious ordained prohibition on usury does not undermine the human behavioural drivers for gratification today over gratification tomorrow and discounting for risk (although these can be culturally influenced), but historically has resulted in work-arounds (eg Islamic finance) or lending being undertaken by a community less constrained by the prohibition.  Certain activities, as in caste based societies, may be undertaken by tightly defined social groups, with implications for the commercial terms on which these activities take place.  But this is not the preserve of caste societies: while the boundaries may be less clearly defined and not religiously ordained, even in contemporary society there is an intergenerational stickiness in occupations and values, traditions and attitudes acquired in childhood shape occupational choices and behaviours.

So, two cheers for Picketty for the underlying thesis.  And, in due recognition of his own disclaimer in his concluding chapters, he has set out to provoke further debate and provide the foundation for further scholarship rather than provide the definitive answer

However, where I find Capital and Ideology most flawed in when Piketty moves from diagnosis to prescription.  In particular, his leap from describing to the increasing inequality in economic outcome for the richest few percent compared to the poorer mass of the population to concluding that all would be solved by appointing worker representatives to corporate boards highlights the danger of straying too far from your own area of expertise.

The inequality that Piketty documents arises from the endowments that we start out with in life (geography, genetics, family wealth, upbringing, education) and our life choices and chances (too many possibilities to enumerate).  These will shape whether we end up with investable wealth (the impact of this on equality is thoroughly documented in his earlier work: Capital in the 21st Century) and whether we end up in positions in which we have market power and are able to extract economic rent, which has arisen most egregiously in recent years for executive directors of large companies as a result of shortcomings in corporate governance.  Addressing inequality arising from our endowments needs primarily to be by “levelling up” in terms of investment in education and social support, particularly in early years, and widening opportunities, but in relation to inherited wealth is a proper area for taxation.  Addressing inequality arising from investable wealth is also clearly an issue for taxation and also needs international solutions, but is a complex matter not least because of the risk of creating perverse incentives and unintended outcomes.  Taxation has its place in addressing inequalities in income, but as with addressing issues surrounding taxation of wealth and wealth transfer, is also fraught with difficulty.  Piketty raises these issues quite correctly.

But addressing inequality arising from market power and the ability to extract economic rent is a proper matter for better corporate governance and regulation to address market failure.  Piketty fails to recognise the role of market failure and consequently the need to address this, and also the problem of the increasing ability of corporate management (and some of the services that support them), to extract economic rent (ironically, at least in part, at the expense of the owners of investible wealth), and that this is purpose behind the need for reform of corporate governance.  His own prescription, worker representation on boards, is not the solution for reasons that I have argued elsewhere.  Rather, and this comes back to his underlying thesis around ideology, there is a need to widen the understanding about the proper purpose of the company (the core of the Escondido Framework), and an improved understanding of the role of boards in serving them.

[1] Acton P (2014) Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens. New York: Oxford University Press

Advice from someone with “the heart of a luvvie and the mind of a suit”

John Tusa is an eminent former broadcaster, managing director of the BBC World Service, and managing director of the Barbican Centre.  He is a veteran of a variety of boards of cultural organisations and proud of being described as possessing “the heart of a luvvie and the mind of a suit”.  He has written an account of his experience of governance that should be on the reading list of everyone either occupying or contemplating appointment to a board.  His experience may be drawn from not-for-profit organisations in arts, broadcasting and education, but it is as applicable to boards in the private and public sectors as it is to the third sector.  As he remarks in the introduction to “On Board”[1]:

“It is sometimes assumed that boards in the business world are totally different from those in the not-for-profit sector. This is far less true than might first appear.  Both kinds of board choose their chair and chief executive, both decide how they appoint colleagues, how they sell to or serve their public, their customers or their audiences; both are responsible for brand, communication and reputation; both supervise the internal health of the organization.  Of course, one deals with profit, the other does not.  But while ‘not for profits’ are not businesses, they must be ‘business-like in the way s they manage their resources.”

While Tusa does not have direct experience of private sector boards himself, he has sat on boards with plenty of people with this experience, notably Kenneth Dayton, founder of the Target retail chain in the US and Tusa’s chair at American Public Radio, who pointed out to him that “governance in the not-for-profit sector is absolutely identical to governance in the for-profit sector”, besides which that it can also be a lot more complex.

Tusa builds his account of governance around his experience on the boards of the National Portrait Gallery[2], American Public Radio, English National Opera[3], the British Musuem, English National Opera, Wigmore Hall, the University of the Arts London and the Clore Leadership Programme, each of which merit a chapter reflecting interviews with fellow board members, executives  and other stakeholders. Tantalisingly, he also alludes to other experiences, such as his time as President of Wolfson College, Cambridge, but without the same detail.  Most of these organisations faced major challenges during his time with them, some potentially threatening to their existence.  His accounts of how the boards weathered their storms and his candour about the mistakes made along the way are pulled together with a short section ending each chapter drawing out his reflections on what he learned from each experience and provide a rich seam of learning not only for people joining boards for the first time but also for those with many board appointments already on the CV.

This book should be read for the lessons Tusa draws out at the end of each chapter.  Board members would do well to reflect on each, and whether they are applicable to their organisations.  But “On Board” can also be read for more: it provides anyone who has observed the ups and downs of some of Britain’s leading cultural institutions of what went on around the board room table.  As someone with strong ties to the Isle of Portland, I was suitably scandalised by the failure twenty years ago to use Portland Stone for the Great Court development at the British Museum.  Tusa’s first career was as  journalist and tells a good story, about this debacle and much more besides, as well providing a required text for chairs, directors and trustees.


[1] John Tusa, On Board (London: Bloomsbury 2020)

[2] His chair at NPG was Owen Chadwick, from whom I took my first lessons in chairing.  Chadwick was Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University and a masterful chair of the faculty Joint Academic Committee, on which I sat as first year undergraduate (along with Diane Abbott, whose approach to faculty politics was considerably more radical than than the one she adopted later in her career as a leading member of the Labour Party in the House of Commons).

[3] I have a small gripe.  John Tusa, having studied history at Cambridge, should know better than to suggest (in the context of ENO which, despite a catalogue of errors made by the board in the 1990s, managed to survive, an achievement that he observes “should not be underestimated”) that it was the French politician Talleyrand who said of his part in the French Revolution “I survived”.  Far from just surviving, Talleyrand’s extraordinary achievement was to serve just about every government in France between 1780 and 1834, from the Ancien Regime, through every stage of the Revolution, the Napoleonic Empire, the Bourbon Restoration and the Orleanist “July Monarchy”.  It was not Talleyrand, but Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, usually known as the abbé Sieyès, a chief political theorist of the French Revolution, who is reputed to have said in answer to a question about what he did during The Terror of 1793-94: “J’ai vécu”

George Schultz at 99

George Schultz (Hoover Institution
George Schultz (Hoover Institution)

Over forty years ago, I attended a four session seminar at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford with George Schultz, then moonlighting as a part-time professor while serving as President of Bechtel Corporation.  By that stage in his career he had already been a professor at MIT, dean of the Chicago University Graduate School of Business, and served in the US government as both Secretary of Labor and Secretary of the Treasury.  Two years later, the Economist’s leading article gave a warm welcome to his appointment as Ronald Reagan’s second Secretary of State, after the disastrous Alexander Haig when the Cold War showed dangerous signs of overheating.  The Economist reeled of a list of the world leaders with whom Schultz had built a close relationship over many years, which contributed the dialling down of threats to world peace during and following Schultz’s term of office.

Among the unexpected benefits of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the efforts of organisations to reach out to audiences with webcasts and webinars.  My Stanford connections mean that I am on a mailing list for the Hoover Institution where Schultz remains, at age 99, a senior fellow, and to judge by the unmissable half hour session on Monday evening, a very active one.

I recall being put down in 1980 by Schultz when I made a case, the details of which I have long forgotten, for government intervention of some sort and he responded arguing against the approach I’d suggested and made the case for the use of economic, and specifically market levers.  It was striking in this week’s interview how wide is the range of areas in which he now argues for intervention in relation to domestic policy, albeit still using economic levers,  and international co-operation to address the range of threats to the future of our society, not least climate change and inequality.

As one of the architects of détente in the 1980s, and more recently an advocate for continued international collaboration (arguing for example that Britain should remain in the European Union), it was no surprise that he contrasted both the current deterioration in the relations between the superpowers and the America First foreign policy of the Trump administration with the post World War 2 settlement.  He opened his talk by citing the vision both of those who gathered at Bretton Woods in July 1944 to establish a new international monetary and financial order and of the European leaders who met in Paris in 1951 to surrender sovereignty to establish the Europe Coal and Steel Community and thereby laid the foundations of the European Union.

He presented a depressing outlook for the world, given the scale of the climate change crisis and the apparent lack of reason in the approach of too many world leaders.  However, I am not sure that I buy all the arguments that he made.  In particular, he argued that the ageing of the populations of North America, Europe, China and the more developed countries of Asian (and given the need for population decline to reduce pressure on the environment and address global warming, the inevitability of an ageing of the global population), create the potential for an end to economic growth and squeeze on living standards, which seemed to take little account of the potential for extending productive lives.

But, however interesting his view of the global outlook and whatever the pleasure for me of this trip down memory lane, what justifies including an account of Schultz’s webinar in this blog?  The “takeaway” is his account of the importance of personal relationships and human interaction.  It is clear from his anecdotes that his ability to rub along with people made a huge difference to the resolution of problems in the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world both when he was Treasury Secretary and, most critically, Secretary of State.  The Economist was right in 1982 to hail the appointment of this massively networked figure.  Interpersonal skills are important to the management of the interface between organisations, right up to the size of superpowers.  They are also critical to the effectiveness of internal operations.  In answer to a question about the dysfunctionality of US government and politics today, he observed that the key figures in both executive and legislative branches all lived in Washington for most of the year, and he would regularly meet over dinner with congressmen from both sides of the aisle, in contrast to the situation today.  A glimpse perhaps of the Dark Matter that makes organisations work?

My recollection from our encounters in 1980 is of a solidly build man in late middle age (at least from the perspective of a 24 year old) with a gravelly baritone, a contrast with the smaller man of today with a voice pitched an octave higher.  There is only so much we can do to hold back physical ageing, but it is inspiring to see that there is every reason for remaining engaged and committed to public debate.  Schultz’s recipe for a long and active life was revealed in answer to the final question addressed to him: “Don’t stop working on the things that interest you.”  There is no sign that George Schultz intends stopping soon.