PoW: The People versus Everybody Else

This week, the stock market collapsed, the US government almost defaulted, the euro teetered, and - worst of all - the Beefeaters got accused of growing dope at the Tower of London. I mean...seriously folks....I knew things were bad, but growing dope at the Tower? It's high treason! Thank you. I'll be here all week. Try the scampi.

So what's at the bottom of our moral malaise? Two of the UK's leading left-wing intellectuals - Neal Lawson of the think-tank Compass, and Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation - suggest the problem is that our elites have lost any sense of serving the public interest. They write: "We are witnessing a crisis of elites". The global debt crisis, the MPs' expenses crisis, the Murdoch hacking crisis - these were all examples, they say, of elites gone wild. The British ruling elite are "like kids left free in a sweetshop, going feral as they lost all self-control and all touch with society".

The "only means" by which such crises can be averted in the future, say Simms and Lawson, is by the re-assertion of the Public Interest via a People's Jury of "a thousand angry citizens", randomly selected by lottery, who will channel their "horror" at scandals into actual anti-elitist policies. How would the Jury work exactly? "A paid secretariat will commission research and call witnesses to make our nation's elites answerable to the public. Reporting within a year of its launch the jury will report on how the public interest relates to media ownership; the role of the financial sector in the crash; MP selections and accountability; policing; and more generally on British political and corporate life."

An interesting idea. I can see Rupert Murdoch being hauled before a panel of baying sans-culottes, the drums being banged as the guillotine is slowly raised...But are elites really to blame for these crisis? Is the public itself wholly innocent?

Take the consumer debt crisis. Surely, this is at least partly the fault of the consumers who borrowed all that money. They - or rather, we - proved incapable of managing our finances. We're the ones who "lost all self-control", like children in a sweetshop. Yet when the consumer debt bubble burst, needless to say, it was everyone's fault except the people. It was the banks, the Fed, the rating agencies, the regulators - and the people could indulge in another very satisfying bout of righteous indignation.

Or take the Murdoch hacking crisis. Can we really blame it entirely on an elite? News International was so powerful because so many people bought The Sun and News of the World. They were part of a very small group of national publications, which includes the Daily Mail, that actually made money, because they gave the people what they want. Turns out what the Public wants is jingoism, sport and large dollops of celebrity gossip. We, the people, never asked too many questions about how our daily diet of gossip and intrigue was cooked up. And when the truth came out, needless to say, it was everyone's fault except the people. It was the Dirty Digger's fault, Rebekah Brooks' fault, David Cameron's fault - and we, the people, could indulge in more rage, horror and indignation.

Or take climate change, another great crisis we're facing. The reason we're failing to cope with it is, at least partly, because the public don't want to curtail our consumption, and we react with fury at any attempt to put up taxes on fuel or limit our consumption of meat. Yet you can bet that, if we do eventually go through some awful climate crunch, it will be everyone's fault except the people's. We were lied to, we were betrayed, we must find someone to string up. In a democracy, it's never the people's fault.

As it happens, the same week the idea of a People's Jury was floated, the British government launched e-petitions on the DirectGov website. Any petition that gets over 100,000 signatures will get its issue potentially debated in the Houses of Parliament. And what did the People demand? Blood. The return of capital punishment to be precise. And Jeremy Clarkson as prime minister. I'm not convinced the public is that interested in the public interest.

The British government seems to be unsure what attitude to take to The People. David Cameron - or rather, his deep thinker, Steve Hilton - has two Big Ideas, as outlined by Cameron in his pre-election TED talk. The first Big Idea is 'empowering citizens in the post-bureaucratic age' (or the Big Society). The second Big Idea is 'working with the grain of human nature using behavioural economics'. The government set up a behavioural science unit, nick-named the 'Nudge Unit', to utilize the behavioural techniques of psychologists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein to 'nudge' the people towards pro-social outcomes like organ donations. (You can see a video of last month's Policy Exchange event with Thaler and the head of the Nudge Unit, David Halpern, here.)

Isn't there a contradiction between these two big ideas? The first idea means giving as much power to the people as possible, letting them run their own services and influence policy through websites like DirectGov. But the second idea - behavioural economics - basically says that the people are irrational creatures who are incapable of controlling their appetites and emotions, and who therefore need to be nudged by experts in pro-social directions. So which is it Steve? Trust the people or nudge the people? Are you 'post-bureaucratic', or just creating another class of nudging Mandarins?

Let us, in Platonic fashion, turn our eyes away from the sordid realm of politics, and consider the pure realm of numbers. I've been enjoying a BBC documentary called The Code, which explores the fractal theories of Benoit B. Mandelbrot. (You know what the B stands for? It stands for Benoit B. Mandelbrot.) But even more enjoyable is this very trippy documentary on Mandelbrot, written and presented by Arthur C. Clarke, with psychedelic plinky-plonk music by Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour. Watching it made me wonder...why do people on hallucinogenic drugs typically see fractals and mandalas? Are we, as Mandelbrot suggests, "used to fractals in our subconscious minds"? Is the rational law of the cosmos somehow reflected or embedded in our minds, as the Stoics believed?

Talking of the discovery of hidden numbers, I see that the Kabbalah Centre in New York, beloved of Madonna, is being investigated by the FBI for tax evasion after this fascinating Newsweek expose. Apparently, the Centre had defined itself as a religious organization to get tax benefits, claiming its founders followed a "vow of poverty" while they actually lived in LA mansions. There were also several irregularities in how their school outreach programme, Success for Kids, was run both in the US and the UK, and the programme has recently been closed. Religious organizations do tend to go wrong, don't they?
Meanwhile, Stephen Hawking's new book, The Grand Design, insists that God doesn't exist, but the universe is instead governed by science - or rather, by laws which science can discover. Hawking suggests the universe "spontaneously created" and then expanded according to these laws. One day, the universe just went...'fuck it, why not exist' (it's very spontaneous like that, the universe), and as soon as that happened, it followed the laws of quantum and gravity. But why did these laws exist in the first place? Why should the universe follow mathematical laws? And why should our minds respond to these laws - the laws of harmony and ratio - as if we were born with intuitions of them, and were designed to discover them? Why should we be built with the capacity to comprehend the universe?

Hawking would argue that humans' capacity to reflect on the universe and discover the laws that guide it comes from the Darwinian law of evolution. Nature enabled us to contemplate the universe because it improves our ability to survive and reproduce. But that seems to me rather like using a copy of Shakespeare's complete works to hammer in a nail, or using a Ferrari to drive to the shops once a week to pick up the groceries. Why do we have such a powerful system for such a basic task? And why is our reasoning capacity so much greater than every other species? Why, damn it, why?
If anyone can answer these questions, let me know. I'll be in the cellar, stacking my tinned food and preparing for the apocalypse.