Our pensions are under threat. You will be familiar with the headline numbers – pensions slashed by over half, to a level where the very survival of the university sector seems in jeopardy. I have done the numbers, like everyone else, and they make grim reading. But how did this whole mess come about? At root, it’s a struggle over risk and who should carry it. The deficit itself is the result of some particular choices made by regulators and administrators. Its very existence is a reflection of the broader struggles over the marketizing of universities and the social contract for public services, and it’s this battle that academics are fighting, whether we know it or not. Continue reading
Category Archives: Writing
The rise and fall of the penny-share offer : A historical sociology of London’s smaller company markets
For the last two years I have been working on a ‘historical sociology’ of two stock markets established in London in 1995 in response to a series of rule changes at the London Stock Exchange (LSE).
The first, the Alternative Investment Market, or AIM, was set up by the LSE. It was established as part of LSE chief executive Michael Lawrence’s ‘seven-point plan’ for the repositioning of the Exchange as an engine for economic growth focused on the UK regions. AIM was also, in part, a reactive move allowing the Exchange to deal with competitive threats in Europe and at home, particularly growing activity under its own Rule 535. It has acted as a proving ground for many smaller companies and plays an important role in the political positioning of the LSE.
The second, OFEX (renamed PLUS in 2004) was privately operated and driven by commercial demand. Originally operated as a trading facility, it achieved legal recognition as a ‘designated market’ in 2001, and then as a Recognized Investment Exchange (RIE) in 2007. As OFEX it coexisted with the LSE and rode the dotcom wave; as PLUS it served as a vehicle for a market rebellion against the LSE. It struggled to maintain a commitment to its original small company constituency and to compete as a trading venue of choice against the Exchange. While AIM has flourished, PLUS faltered after the financial crisis of 2008, and my narrative finishes in 2012 with the sale of the PLUS RIE licence to ICAP, now NEX.
My research is based on interviews with members of the small company stock market community, as well as extensive documentary records. I have compiled a narrative account of these markets designed primarily for interested academics and for members of the professional community. It’s freely available and you can download it here. My narrative begins on the old floor of the LSE prior to the 1986 ‘Big Bang’ and finishes with the failure of PLUS in 2012. I conclude with some brief reflections upon the challenges and opportunities facing stock markets serving the smaller company sector, as illuminated by this history.
Please feel free to download, circulate, and quote. Suggested citation: Roscoe , P J 2017 , The rise and fall of the penny-share offer : A historical sociology of London’s smaller company markets. University of St Andrews.
Last week I attended the 12th International Ethnography Symposium, at the University of Manchester, and had the pleasure in speaking to a group of fellow ‘marketographers’, whatever they may be. In fact, I think that was rather the point of the stream, organized by Daniel Neyland and Vera Ehrenstein (both of Goldsmiths University) and Dean Pierides (University of Manchester). My thanks to Dan, Vera and Dean for a great two days. In the meantime, here’s my talk:
When I mischievously titled my abstract ‘Confessions of a critical marketographer’ I had in mind, not so much Augustine, but those bawdy films of the 1970s with names like Confessions of a Window Cleaner, all suggestion and double entendre but no more than the occasional glimpse of flesh on camera. This, I thought, accurately represented the state of my ideas, or lack of them. But of course the confessional tale is one of the categories of ethnography highlighted by John van Maanen in Tales of the Field. It is, he says a response to the realist abstraction of earlier scientific ethnography, focusing attention on the fieldworker as a means of supporting authority. It is typically told from a shifting perspective and in a character building narrative, ending on an upbeat note: a justification, in fact, of the realist work that follows it, or more usually precedes it, because in 1988 at least, one could not write a confession until after the realist account. Van Maanen goes on to introduce the Impressionist tale, a narrative account depending on interest, coherence and fidelity, offering impressionistic moments or fleeting glances of the subject at hand: the audience is invited to relive the tale with the teller, to work out what is going on as the narrative unfolds. It seems to me that this move, described by van Maanen in 1988, it is roughly where we are at when it comes to marketography: glimpses and impressions, stylishly drawn, are appearing alongside more realist tracts. If I had to give an example, I would site Muniesa and company’s achingly stylish oeuvre ‘Capitalization’. Though whether we Brexit Brits could get away with something so assuredly Parisian is another matter… Continue reading
Evolution and organization, part 2: more sloppy language, dodgy organizational theory, and Weber being right all along
Spring is in the air. The sky is blue and the garden robin is lining his nest-box bachelor-pad with moss. At such a time the thoughts of man turn naturally, like those of the robin, to matters evolutionary, and in particular to the long-awaited second half of my blog on organization and evolution. I posted the first part before Christmas, though never made it to organization, waylaid instead by a lengthy detour into Richard Dawkins’ decidedly wonky metaphysics.
Pseudo-evolutionary chatter in organizations: it seems to be everywhere. We don’t bat an eyelid when Amazon talks about its ‘purposeful Darwinism’, a yearly cull of the worst performing employees. It doesn’t make us shudder to hear that this is based on constructive criticism offered to bosses via secret feedback mechanisms. Final year undergraduates cheerfully tell us about the ‘rank and yank’ mechanisms in the firms they hope to work for, never considering that things may not go to plan and they might themselves be yanked, not ranked.
Management scholars of a critical bent should be worried about this kind of thing, so I’ve set out to elaborate a genealogy of these ideas. It’s one of many possible lineages as the evolutionary tropes have themselves evolved and spread out in their own diasporic family tree; Continue reading
A few days ago, a scientist friend remarked that he was reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. What’s more, he was really enjoying it. It really spoke to him, he averred. This awkward conversational moment set me thinking once again about a topic that I’ve been pursuing on and off for the last couple of years: trying to get a hold of the reasons for importing evolutionary thinking into management thinking. It strikes me as odd when a firm can describe its ruthless annual cull of the weaker performers (as identified by colleagues through anonymous feedback mechanisms, which sounds a very fair and reasonable method to me) as ‘purposeful Darwinism’. Not just as odd, but also morally charged and strategically dishonest, as if ruthless pursuit of shareholder interest can be justified by the subliminal message that those under-performers – the weak! – are dull herbivores, contentedly fattening themselves up until something more leonine, in this case the go-getting manager – the strong! – comes along and scoffs them. Mind you, this week in politics has testified, among other, darker things, to the enduring image of the strong-man in the popular imagination.
Richard Dawkins, of course, is at the epicentre of this particular earthquake of popular thinking. But I was struck by my friend’s comment because the God Delusion is a truly bad
I recently travelled down to the School of Management at the University of Leicester to give a talk titled ‘The stranger, the wager and the ethics of office’. With a bombast designed to obscure my lack of confidence on the topic, the abstract staked my skin in my own wager that arch post-modernist Richard Kearney and Max Weber, high priest of rationality, could somehow be made to speak to one another. In the event, though, I played it cool and confessed the project to be very much work in progress. My good colleagues at Leicester listened helpfully and offered many interesting comments questions. After glass or two of local beer and a fantastic Leicester curry to finish the evening, I returned home full of ideas and enthusiasm. Academia isn’t always such a tough job.
Here’s a lightly polished version of my notes for the talk.
‘Many thanks for inviting me here today to share some thoughts and ideas with you. The project remains at a very early-stage, but perhaps there are the makings of an interesting paper. You will have to tell me what you think.
As some of you may know, my research is inspired by Michel Callon and the performativity/market studies program, with a particular interest in market-type arrangements as organisational devices and all their attendant consequences. By consequences, I mean the moral dimensions of market-type arrangements and their effects upon personhood. You may wonder what leads a scholar of management to this particular topic. But I wasn’t always in a management school. Misspent undergraduate years as a theologian left me with abiding interest in the nature of good personhood, and a conviction that neither good nor personhood can be abstracted from context or described by universal, rational rules. You can see, I hope, how a management scholar with a background such as mine can arrive at the conclusion that organisation and personhood are irrevocably linked.
There are three unexplained phrases in the title – the stranger, the wager, and the ethics of office. I’ll work through them all, and by the end of the talk you’ll have a sense of what I’m up to, I hope. Let’s start with the ethics of office, which of course comes from the work of Max Weber, particularly as represented by du Gay (2000, 2008).
Yikes, you might say! How can Weber possibly sit with Callon’s actor network constructivism? In fact, it sits more comfortably than you might think: Callon explicitly casts his work in the Weberian tradition, for Weber the anthropologist is interested in the ethical possibilities of action open to persons placed into various life spheres, where the ethical character of individuals is determined by institutional constraints. (du Gay helps us distinguish between the anthropologically inclined Weber, and the Weber of rationalist theory whose formalist-substantivist distinction has been used to front various kinds of critical political economy, doing Weber something of a disservice in the process).
The crucial point is that for Weber, and Callon too, good character means being able to live up to the ethical standards embedded in one’s office. This idea of specific, ethical practices, irreducible to common principles, ‘appears quite foreign to those for whom a common or universal form of moral judgement is held to reside in the figure and capacities of the self-reflective person’ (du Gay 2008, 131). Weber can be seen as a late practitioner of an earlier tradition – the ethical tradition of office – where office-holders are personae, bundles of instituted rights and duties.
But there remains a problem: if ethics are embedded in particular offices, rather than the person of the moral agent, how can we talk of business ethics at all. How can we attempt to establish normative commonalities that might transcend, for example, the office of the arms dealer, or bond trader? To put that another way, how can we stop ourselves from falling into anything-goes relativism, where the sole merit attached to a job is the discharge of the technical requirements of that role? Continue reading
So far so good. It’s Sunday morning, the second week of January and I’m sitting down to write the second installment of my 11 weeks (or thereabouts) of good stuff. Each week I’ll take a section from the manifesto published in A Richer Life, and post it on this blog with some additional commentary.
As I review the not-very-inspiring viewer statistics for last week’s effort, here’s a supremely appropriate second extract:
And kick our cost- benefit habit. Efficiency is not the only virtue. A society needs justice, and empathy, with all the obligations that go alongside them. It’s too easy, faced with a difficult political decision, to emphasize benefits over costs and take refuge in ‘trustworthy’ numbers and scientific calculations. But when we examine those numbers, they turn out to be politics in disguise. We need conversation and debate over what is best, and best for whom, not what is cheapest; to open up the black boxes of measurements and metrics so that we can see what these metrics really are, and what they do. Cost-benefit thinking is corrosive in our own lives too. If we act only in anticipation of a return, we will all be the poorer, while a society where all contribute will be a far richer place. So go to that team meeting, even though it really isn’t part of your job. Take your friend/spouse/children to the play/film/concert, even though you’ll hate it; they’ll have fun and you may well find that’s enough.
The world has changed a great deal since the summer of 2014 when I wrote those words. The horrors of last year – Charlie Hebdo, our awakening to the ‘existential threat’ posed by Daesh, the attacks in Paris, and most of all, the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe – have forced a sudden maturing of political discourse. While economics still has plenty to say on the topic of migration – largely positive, as it happens – it is just one of many competing voices: the Christian left, for example, represented by Giles Fraser here, or the Archbishop of Canterbury’s careful association of British patriotism with welcome: ‘In today’s world, hospitality and love are our most formidable weapons against hatred and extremism’. Equally, there is an understandable fear, driven by the shadow of attacks that weren’t, and the ugly violence that manifested itself in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.
Closer to home, just look at the change in political discourse over flood defences. At the beginning of 2014 the coalition government demanded a great hike – a 60% increase in benefits – for every pound spent on flood defences. Following this winter’s deluge, we see the environment agency advocating a holistic approach to flood prevention, and stating ‘people will always come first’.
In fact, in such a climate, there is something appealing about the cool voice of reason provided by economic analysis – a dispassionate assessment of the long-term costs and benefits of any action. But it’s clear for now that there are bigger questions at stake.
We must be careful to distinguish between efficiency as a means of distinguishing between solutions to rival problems, and competing solutions to the same problem. In the latter instance, cost benefit has a lot to say. The problem comes in the assumption of transferability. An absurd example will illustrate the point: let’s say the cost benefit payoff of dealing with floods is better than that of dealing with refugees. There is an economic argument to say that we should sort out the floods first, whatever the human costs. That may sound crazy, but in debates over global warming, for example, it’s more or less what many economists have said. When an eminent American economist says that it’s unethical to invest in climate change prevention projects of uncertain return, one can’t help seeing a politics that privileges the haves of the developed world over the have-nots of those countries like Bangladesh.
But my book isn’t really about policy. I’m concerned about the corrosive effect that cost benefit calculations have on us as people – as persons. I argue that individually self-interested action, often driven by cost-benefit analysis, is collectively impoverishing. Private vice is not, despite what contemporary neo-Smithians like to say, a recipe for public virtue. Not at all.
Cost-benefit reasoning is a mode of thinking that we slip into very naturally, so naturally in fact that thinkers such as Daniel Dennet have argued it to be the only truly natural way of thinking. We are all its victims. Indeed, as I drag myself to my shed on a Sunday morning to write these words I can’t help noticing that the views of last week’s endeavour could be numbered on fingers and toes. Why on earth should I bother?
When I’ve finished the blog, I’ll announce it on twitter. I’m fascinated by the economics of twitter, and particularly the cost-benefits of following others. Being a twitter dilettante (a twittertante? A dilettwit?) I just drop in now and then to see what’s going on, catch up on the news and so forth. My friend and fellow twitterante @cfhelgesson captures the mood of this social media existence nicely when describes his news feed as being like rain: when he’s thirsty he can cup his hands and take what he wants, and when he’s not it simply passes by.
A diletwit like me can only cope with following a couple of hundred accounts, beyond which there is a ‘diminishing marginal return’ on each additional follow. (CF, more industrious than I, follows over 700. I will ask him how he does it.) Thus I am operating a clear-cost benefit algorithm for managing my twitter follows; the costs in terms of missed tweets and time required imposed by following one more person outweigh the potential benefits in terms of hilarity, news, political acumen, feline cuteness and so forth. It’s one in, one out, pretty much.
How then do people rack up 10,000 follows? Surely the cost of keeping up with each of these additional follows will greatly outweigh any infinitesimal marginal benefit? Unless, of course, the game is different; if a user is only interested in building up his or her own following, then the economics suddenly work out very well. There is no cost in any additional follow because one has no intention of paying any attention to anything they do, nor is there a cost for any additional follower. But if one sees value in a huge following the marginal return on each follower is increasingly large. The whole economy is suddenly upside down. (The same applies, oddly, to the business of being super rich. When one is wealthy enough to start buying yachts, football clubs and politicians, each extra dollar becomes worth a whole lot more than the last one.)
If one follows total strangers in the expectation that some of them will follow you back, then following huge numbers is an efficient and instrumental means of generating value, and ‘building an online platform’ as the marketers like to say. I was followed last week by ‘a self-taught photographer and photoshop artist located in Los Angeles’ who tweets gorgeous head shots and theatrical bon-mots to an audience of 11,000, but follows 9,999. Including me. Enough said.
Presumably, not everyone follows back, and that 9,999 number requires careful curation. 30,000 follows to 10,000 followers might look bad; better to keep it level. So every time I encounter a twitter profile following a four figure number, or more, and a matching level of followers I think ‘Aha!’
I’m sure anyone with any level of sophistication regarding social media figured this out long ago – but on the other hand, if they did, why does the following trick still works at all? (Maybe it doesn’t – maybe there is, across twitter, a diminishing marginal return on following for followers. That would be truly ironic.)
I instinctively dislike this game. There are two ways of approaching twitter. The first is as a community, where one can share jokes and articles, strange gifs and pictures of cats and all the other things that make the Internet go round. The emphasis, though, is on share, because sharing implies receiving and participating as well as giving. It involves a certain degree of empathy in as much as one expects that people may be interested in whatever it is that one has chosen to tweet. It involves treating people as worth something in them themselves.
The second is to treat twitter as a gigantic tool for self-aggrandizement: building an online profile, getting famous, driving business, ultimately cashing in. It involves asking people to pay attention to you – to spend their time, their efforts on you – without any sense that you will pay attention in return. That additional follow, your ten thousandth, is a trick, a con. It is a message sent to someone saying ‘Hey, you’re interesting…’ that means no such thing.
Of course, if cost benefit is your only measure of moral purpose, then such a game is completely legitimate. It’s a cheap and easy way to hoover up followers, and you’d be a fool not to. That’s why cost benefit alone is such a damaging moral standard, because it mandates instrumental and collectively impoverishing courses of action. The twitter following game is a synecdoche for a much bigger discussion: we need ways of talking and thinking that transcend cost benefit in our own private lives as much as our public sphere. If everyone behaved according to the rules of the twitter following game in real life, we really would have some problems.
All of which brings me back to the business of writing this blog. If I were driven by cost benefit alone I would have sat in the warm and read the paper, pausing only to follow a few more hundred total strangers. I certainly wouldn’t have spent a precious Sunday morning hunched in the shed, peering at the screen, tapping out words while my toes go steadily numb.
I’d like it to be read, of course. I’d like the number of readers to exceed the number of my fingers and toes (so if you like it, please pass it on!). But that’s not why I wrote it. I did so because I said that I would, and I have a promise to keep to myself as much as to the invisible Internet. I did so because I know some people –CF, perhaps – will read it, and I hope they will like it. Perhaps it will raise a smile here and there.
And finally, I did so because I consume blogs too, many of them very good, and I want to be a genuine part of that community of writers and thinkers. I don’t expect this blog will make me rich and famous, and I’m not building an online platform; I simply believe that the world is a better place for the collective effort of writing decent prose and sticking it online. Because lots of us think that, it is.
It’s New Year. The time of December parties, Christmas celebrations, of self-indulgence and sofa-slouching is over. The Hogmanay hangover is easing its vile claws from your frontal lobes. It’s time, as diet gurus and health fads tell us, for the New You; for a booze-free January, a gym subscription, and resolutions that must not be broken in the first few days.
In the spirit of all those thirty-day programmes, I am offering my own contribution to our self-improvement. Eleven weeks of good stuff, or thereabouts.
The epilogue to my book, A Richer Life, contains a Manifesto – suggestions for ways in which we might improve our political discourse, our polity, and our personal lives. Introducing it, I wrote:
‘We are all economists now. Every day we think in terms of cost and benefits, and follow the measure of our own self-interest. In the shops, in politics, even in love, we expect value for money and efficiency, high returns for low risk. Economic reasoning is withering our social and political institutions, and the strategic, instrumental self-advancement that it advocates is corroding our personal relationships.
How can we be different? How should we think, talk and act; what tools should we use and institutions should we build to be better persons? What must we do to live a richer life?
Here are my suggestions. Some are big ideas, and others are things we can each do today. Together, they call for nothing less than an inversion of contemporary political economy: for an economics that is grassroots, not top-down, for trade that is embedded in relationship, and for a world where the claims of capital and property and are not allowed to ride roughshod over the dignity and worth of individuals.’
There are eleven suggestions. Not for any particular literary or aesthetic reason, but simply because I stopped when I had done. Once a week, for the next eleven weeks, I’m going to post each one on my website with some elaboration and comment. I hope they will make you think, and even better, talk. Maybe even act. If you like them, pass them on, tell your friends. If you don’t – fair enough, but I hope you stopped to think why. (If you didn’t, I suggest you listen to Tim Minchin on the virtue of being hard on your opinions).
So here’s point number one.
- Let’s cure our obsession with price. We must find a way of speaking about priceless things – the environment, biodiversity, culture, care, relationships, quality of life – that does not depend on price. Putting a price on nature, for example, makes it interchangeable and consumable, an outcome that is neither needed nor intended. Something is priceless, as the philosopher Roger Scruton points out, because we discover its value only through experience and interaction and therefore there is nothing for which it can be meaningfully exchanged. The virtues of a loving relationship are worked out and manifested as we go through life: they defy foreknowledge and transcend price. We must cultivate a political discourse dignified and intelligent enough to recognise the limits of our knowledge and accept the worth of things around us.
Price is often shorthand for knowledge. According to mainstream economic theory, it is the price mechanism that translates our rich and varied preferences into a single currency through which needs can be met. But the logic of the market often takes another step and claims that price is the only way of knowing about something. Virtues which cannot be expressed in price cannot be virtues at all. To say that something is priceless – a work of art, for example – often just means that it is very, very expensive.
Price is all knowing, and that omniscience means that we must be able to see into the future. Possible benefits must be factored into present price, just as the future revenue streams from a new piece of machinery in a factory are factored into its upfront cost. This is how the discourses of contemporary life encourage us to think about the choices we make. A purchase, a leisure activity, a new fitness regime, a new job, a boyfriend or girlfriend – all of these are to be planned as investments and understood in terms of their payoffs.
But Scruton, himself a defender of markets, hits the mark when he says that pricelessness means exactly the reverse: that for whatever reason, we cannot know or understand what these future values may be. The only way to find out is by doing, sometimes putting ourselves at risk in the process. The tendency to price is a tendency to control, a will to power over the uncertainty and chaos that adds depth – delight and despair – to our lives. Who would wish to live like a factory machine?
Accepting the limits of our ability to price things involves a certain humility and requires us to develop other ways of speaking and thinking. There is an argument that putting a price on nature gives it a seat at the table, allowing it to be factored into calculations and decisions. That argument is really an indictment of our own lack of imagination: we have to find other ways of allowing the priceless to speak.
There’s a subtle politics at work in our obsession with price. Prices are numbers and we tend to think of numbers as objective and scientific. But all kinds of mechanisms may be at work in the construction of those numbers. In my book, I talk about the practicalities of finding prices for things that can’t be bought and sold – landscapes and bodily organs, for example – and show how tendentious and political many of these mechanisms are. They are often unfair, too. Once we get into the land of calculation, the person with the biggest calculator always wins; the supermarket’s calculative power and customer data is a hugely powerful tool in shaping our choices. A neoliberal free market enthusiast will argue that the market is the biggest calculator of all. It is, indeed, but not one that is necessarily fair – ability and willingness to pay are not the same thing at all.
Price is a mode of speech available only to those who are able to pay. By taking price as the sole measure of value, we exclude and disenfranchise those who can least afford to be excluded.
Three good reasons to cure our obsession with price.
A well-known brand of cosmetics advertises itself with the slogan ‘because you’re worth it’. These words serve to focus the action of valuing – of worth and deeming worthy – on ourselves, while reducing everything and everyone else to commodities exchangeable in pursuit of our own satisfaction. These For a New Year’s resolution we could try the reverse – ‘because they’re worth it’ – as a justification for any kind of action.
Now that is a slogan I’d like to hear in public life.