back to article SHIP OF FAIL: How do we right capsized institutions we thought would NEVER go under?

John Watkinson writes the first in a series of essays for El Reg in which he examines failures in society from banking and education to transport and IT. But why whine about this stuff so much, he ponders, when we can simply get on with the business of problem solving? The last seven or so years since the economic crash has …

  1. William Donelson

    VOTE! Polls don't matter.

    * Only VOTES matter.

    * The BEST way to Multiply your voting power:

    ** Set up a Carpool Society with many cars to take voters to the polls.

    * Only YOU can save democracy.

    Remember the Conservatice Dream:

    A sweatshop country where compliant workers live in ignorance, fear, illness and poverty, while the 2% bleed us, laugh and invest overseas.

    1. Anomalous Cowturd
      Thumb Up

      @Bill re: VOTE!

      The BIG problem is not the voters, it's the choices.

      Would you like to bend over? Me on top? Or would you prefer nice comfy spoons?

      Any way, YOU'RE FUCKED!

      Hmmm......

      P.S. Sorry for shouting. :o)

      And NO, I don't mean vote UKIP. Splitters!

      1. codejunky Silver badge

        Re: @Bill re: VOTE!

        @ Anomalous Cowturd

        "The BIG problem is not the voters, it's the choices."

        Somewhat but lets think it through. Every time we get a leader who wants to lead we dont want them. We want them to bend to our will all the time and through voting we get to choose until they are as malleable as we dont want. Blair got power through the gift of lying with a smile, which just so happens to be what we have as the main 3 parties now. We did have a decision maker who was strong and made tough choices but she is practically regarded as the devil in this country so nobody wants to be like Thatcher. However her kind of leadership at the top of each party but with their own views of how to proceed is what we need to make the tough choices instead of lies on one hand and a slap with the other.

        For 13 years people voted for a hateful little man who conned the country and has now won awards regardless of the wars and death he caused through his lies. A man who introduced uni fees and did much harm to the country was voted and loved.

        So do our politicians want to accept they will upset some but do what they believe is right for the country, or do they lie, cheat and steal but you will support them? The choice is obvious and they dont pretend to be saints.

        So now the public mood slowly shifts from boy band looks where everyone is plastic (Blair, Cameron, Clegg, Millitwit) to toying with the idea of the oddball. So we have Farrage vs Boris but Boris has the benefit of already being part of a 'standard' party that people already know and hate so will happily vote for. How UKIP have done so well I have no idea but they offer enough of a threat that the main parties bend to whatever policy UKIP shout about. We have the politics we want. The one we voted for and the one we fear to change.

        We have people who vote for their 'team' red. blue or yellow. We have extremists who vote BNP, green, etc. We have rogues who vote smaller parties because they will never get in. We have the uncaring who spoil their ballot but then complain anyway because a celebrity did it (ha). And then we have people who accept the perfect party cannot exist because it is different for everyone and instead vote for what they feel is right for the country regardless of everyone elses belief.

        If we want someone worth voting for maybe we need voters worth the effort.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Megaphone

          Re: @Bill re: VOTE!

          You say Maggie was a leader. The issue is that she deliberately employed yes men who would not disagree, so you end up with not a leader, but a dictator by proxy.

          If she had some people brave enough to say, "actually, that is a STUPID idea "(an issue still around today), then much of the shit that goes on wouldn't happen.

          You want change?

          BAN parties. Give the elected a free vote in ALL matters, instead of this utterly pointless towing the line.

          If where I live the majority want to allow fox hunting say, then my MP should say so and vote so, not just toe the party line. My voice should NOT be overruled by the 11% of MP's that form the London mob, after all I doubt any of them have even heard of where I live, let alone know what affect me.

          1. codejunky Silver badge

            Re: @Bill re: VOTE!

            @ Lost all faith...

            You say she employed yes men but if you have a vision of how to proceed do you want to hire back stabbers and heel dragger's or do you hire people who will get on with it? She had plenty people disagreeing with her very publicly. Now imagine a lib dem with that kind of will. Imagine a tory or labour. At that point there will be a national choice instead of 3 plastic conmen. Imagine making a choice and the chosen leader actually making changes.

            Instead we have labour promising the earth and instead feeding you dirt. We have tories who dont want to look like the nasty party so look similar to the last labour party. We have libs fighting for their beliefs one second and then gagging to sell out the next.

            Some people want larger state and some want smaller. However we have 3 parties of 'yey EU' and more legislation. If we vote for plastic muppets who promise lies and seek to control/steal then guess what we get. Regardless of their success it is somewhat good when a party shakes things up a bit (usually a smaller party like BNP, Green, UKIP) because without them we get the same 3 flavours of dumb look.

            I would prefer a rolling back of the state and allowing local matters to be more local. For example of fox hunting it would be a rural decision instead of half knowledge from the big city. But the only way to really get it is to vote in stronger leaders who actually will do something like reducing the central control instead of a half baked idea like a mayor.

    2. James Micallef Silver badge

      Voting is just a first step, but there are many other related problems, politically:

      - parties are basically the same with a different veneer on top. Ideology blah-blah is radically different, actual policies quite close to each other, real implementation of policies almost indistinguishable

      - So much of the country is now run by quangos and civil service departments that politicians come and go but the people actually taking and implementing decisions mostly stay the same.

      By the way this isn't just UK but pretty much everywhere

      Stepping back from political and looking at the bigger picture, a lot of this stems from basic human cognitive disabilities that have been repeatedly demonstrated:

      - cognitive bias, accepting what we already 'know' and rejecting evidence for opposing views

      - horribly skewed 'intuitive' risk assessment

      - horribly wrong 'intuitive' feeling for numbers, especially very large ones

      - terrible short-term-ism

      - etc etc

      Unfortunately, significantly changing anything in our social / economic / political systems requires a constant struggle against not only the status quo but against millions of years of evolution that have left humans as a species woefully incapable of properly adapting to modern life.

      Bugger!

    3. ciaran
      WTF?

      Politicians are corrupt - by definition

      We live in a capitalist society. Our society believes that each individual benefiting themselves will benefit society. And then we vote for a politician and expect them to work selflessly for the good of the whole without benefiting themselves? Really?

    4. Caaaptaaaain kick arse

      Doesn't matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.

  2. Drew V.
    Flame

    You've got it exactly backwards.

    The problem is precisely that in our political culture, real politics has been gradually replaced with what Evgeny Morozov calls "solutionism". When you talk about "fundamental solutions", you should really be talking about political solutions, NOT science or technology. But the former are no longer possible because (we are repeatedly told) this is a "post-political" age in which we must rely on the "experts" (such as IT experts and so on) to solve all the problems for us, preferably with convenient technical solutions that instantly work in the short term. What is no longer acceptable, however, is questioning the political framework and the political choices within which those technical solutions must be found and applied...even though the real solution might be to make different political choices.

    Energy is the perfect example. It's obvious that fossil fuel dependency, global warming, and related problems can never be solved with technical means alone. The free market is never going to come up with enough "green" products and technologies to solve it. A real solution would be to start with making different political choices: the state taking charge, radically changing the paradigms under which the energy industry operates, and actively mandating how we live our lives. But for that, there is no political will, and nobody is allowed to question the political framework or the ruling ideologies (meaning, neoliberalism). The politicians have no stomach for such a thing, the wealthy and the corporations reject it because it would obstruct their flow of profit, and the public has been indoctrinated by the idea of TINA (There Is No Alternative).

    And the utopian technologists make this even worse, by peddling the lie "don't worry, we can solve all these problems for you. You don't have to throw out your politicos and you don't have change how you live your lifes. Just give us free rein, don't question what we're doing, and everything will magically be fine."

    1. SoaG

      Re: You've got it exactly backwards.

      "A real solution would be to start with making different political choices: the state taking charge...and actively mandating how we live our lives."

      What could possible go wrong?

      When in all of human history has that approach had a result other than going disastrously wrong on an epic scale?

      Nothing is more adverse to change, more inclined to treat symptoms not problems, to cover up problems and mistakes, and to punish whistle blowers, than government. The most sure fire way to prevent resolution of any problem is to give responsibility for dealing with it to people whose pay depends on the problem continuing to exist, and whose position & advancement on it continuing to get worse.

      1. ecofeco Silver badge

        Re: You've got it exactly backwards.

        "Nothing is more adverse to change, more inclined to treat symptoms not problems, to cover up problems and mistakes, and to punish whistle blowers, than government. "

        Yes there is: corporations.

        I'll take the government over corporations any damn day. It's the lesser of the 2 evils.

        1. ElectricRook

          Re: You've got it exactly backwards.

          Oh no . . . no no no. Government is ten times worse than corporations. For one the government has the guns and plenty of men all too eager to use them. For instance in the US the department of education has a SWAT team! Plus the government licenses the press and often threatens them with the tax man who in case you did not notice has guns and their own SWAT team too. Governments cannot reorganize on the fly like corporations do. Governments blunder on into the fog. For instance, a government facility where I worked used paper tape and Hollerith cards as late as 1992! And yes that agency had guns and a SWAT team too!

      2. Drew V.

        Re: You've got it exactly backwards.

        I think you've misunderstood me somewhat: I was rattling off examples, not saying that the political solution necessarily HAS to come from the state. In the specific case of energy, where economies of scale and centralized control over a national grid are pretty much unavoidable, the state is the obvious political level at which fundamental changes can be implemented.

        But it doesn't necessarily have to be the state. In fact, when the author writes:

        "Actions that can be taken at all levels, from the individual upwards, that may improve our standard of living and reduce our anxieties and fears whilst not requiring our only planet to be pillaged as if there was another one round the corner."

        ...it seems to me that (perhaps without realizing it or intending to) he's really referring to localized political solutions. That is to say, individuals and communities organizing themselves and creating a political solution at a local level. It should have been clear from my argument as a whole that my definition of "politics" is a very broad one, not limited to either parliament or the state.

        1. TheOtherHobbes

          Re: You've got it exactly backwards.

          Central government has been biased against local solutions since Thatcher's day. The Queen of Sleaze wasn't just a nasty piece of work, her policies were deliberately designed to consolidate power in the hands of her handlers.

          So good luck with getting anything more useful than a bit of gardening and maybe some road signs put up locally. If you try to do anything more interesting, you'll find you're 'not allowed' to.

          The real problem is democracy is rigged and basically non-existent in the UK. The voting thing is a bit of panto we all get to take part in. It has almost no effect on policy.

          There are no easy answers, and Watkinson's vapid conclusion certainly isn't one of them. But if I had too much spare cash I'd start a party that encouraged people to pick people from the local community who are respected, effective and have a record of integrity to stand for parliament. *Not* business people and the usual suspects, but people like teachers, nurses, and even (!) software developers.

          Then run a slow flush through Westminster replacing the current crop of chancers, thieves, and shills in all parties with adults who have a track record of solving problems.

          It's not a perfect solution, but it's (arguably) better than any of the alternatives.

        2. Tom 13

          Re: You've got it exactly backwards.

          No, I understood you perfectly. You're one of the ones who is part of the precipitate.

    2. Tom 13

      Re: You've got it exactly backwards.

      You were doing okay with the first paragraph then went completely off the rails on the second.

      A fair number of problems are because we get a choice between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dummer. Then you want to hand dictatorial powers to Tweedle Dummer.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Since the loss of manufacturing jobs, manual labour jobs, engineering jobs, indeed most jobs that required people to mine, make, build and repair things, all we have left is the service industry. Now it seems that if you can't do much there, you become a manager, you go into marketing, consultancy, PR, and you immediately find the very small section of people who really are productive, and really know useful things, threatening.

    So managers and other service non-jobs end up in power, yet have little or nothing to do with workers and producers, and end up living in this purely abstract, value-limited world. When messy real life intrudes, no-one's able to cope. Calamity ensues, again and again.

    Until we learn to properly value the producers and doers in this world - say farmers, teachers, engineers, train drivers, doctors, nurses, scientists, builders, plumbers and so on - we're stuck.

    1. Drew V.

      Yeah, but then the question becomes: WHY do we not "properly value the producers and doers"? And the answer is that this is a deliberate political choice we have been consistently making (and, for most people, making it without fully realizing that they are making it) since Thatcher.

      1. peter_dtm
        Flame

        since Thatcher ?

        since long before Thatcher - probably since the end of the 1st World War.

        WIlson & co had no truck with engineers or scientists either - unless they were party credentialed (lysenkoism)

        What is it with people who blame Thatcher for everything - ? She's been gone these many years; we've had Blair and Brown who definatlely hated engineering & science; & Cameron who wouldn't understantand what a thesis was if you made him learn the definition by rote; using single sylable words ! News for you - NONE of the governments following Thatcher have attempted to reverse any of her most conservative/capitalist/sane anti-big government policies; so if you don't like Thatcherism you must hate all the modern political parties.

        Perhaps the only hope we had was a secretary of education who was prepared to fight the establishment so ALL kids had a chance at learning to try to excell instead of being told how useless they are (indirectly of course; what else is the refusal to allow competition but a subtle way of saying you aren't goog enough ?)

        Why do we not value producers & doers - because kids are taught NOT to that's why - science/maths/engineering ts too 'difficult ' so do a gcse in hair straightening or grass growing. Gove had the guts to challange that and finally halt the academic dumbing down.

        Why has this come about ? Many reasons no doubt; part of it is that science & technical studies demand ABSOLUTE answers that are mostly either right or wrong - unlike all the soft skills where there are as many right answers as there are politically correct views. And the current powers that be do not believe in ABSOLUTES; evrything is realtive (to their political leanings); to have to face the posibility of being wrong is just too damned soul destroying for the poor things.

        1. Drew V.

          "so if you don't like Thatcherism you must hate all the modern political parties."

          The way they all operate now? Yes, of course I do, and I am hardly alone in that, judging by the number of people who don't vote.

          Those are the parties of a highly dysfunctional, corrupted and anachronistic system, and they are all part of the problem to a greater or less degree.

          Otherwise I agree with you, though, in the sense that there are other additional reasons for why things are the way they are. And it didn't literally begin with Thatcher, no, but she sure did more than anyone else to make the problem worse.

      2. Tom 13

        Re: since Thatcher.

        Again your failure shows. You've been actively making these choice since long before Thatcher. Thatcher stood against them. They started at least as far back as Churchill's successor, and possibly before Churchill. You progs all want to claim you're opposed to fascism and the nazis, the truth is until Hitler invaded France your predecessors marched pretty much in step with his National Socialism. It was only AFTER he had killed millions of Jews that you felt free to hate him and vilify your political opponents, regardless of their actual position on the political spectrum, as being just like him. Until you remove the beam from your own eye, you'll never be able to see clearly.

    2. el_oscuro

      In other words, we are all on the "B" ark.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      'Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded--here and there, now and then--are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as “bad luck.”' -- "Time Enough For Love", Robert A. Heinlein

  4. Mike Flugennock
    Pirate

    Perhaps a better question to ask would be...

    Should we bother to right any of these capsized institutions?

    1. ElectricRook

      Re: Perhaps a better question to ask would be...

      Should we bother to right any of these capsized institutions?

      Precisely, we should not attempt to right them. Nature abhors vacuum. Something will rise up to fill the place of the failed companies. That something will be the best parts of the failed conglomerates. Let evolution rule, survival of the fittest!

      1. John G Imrie Silver badge

        Re: Perhaps a better question to ask would be...

        That was working really well, until the politicians decided that the banks where too big to fail. We should have done what Island did and let the lot go into Bankruptcy.

    2. Tom 13

      Re: Perhaps a better question to ask would be...

      Given that nobody is building new boats you might be able to move to? Probably.

      Given the adverse effect their current state is having on all of us? Definitely.

      Whether they should continue as large as they were? Probably not.

      Whether they should continue to be run by the same idiots that ran them before? Definitely not.

      Which means the 'How?' is still the critical part, even if you do want to chuck some or most of the parts that capsized. Not that I have any belief the author of the article will be able to shed light on the question. Some of his examples and starting points illuminate the fact that he is as clueless as the people he berates on how to properly fix what is wrong.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Actually when it comes to solving problems with our society & by extension our policitcal institutions, what we need to do is to start with education, and the one theme that should be taught from the very beginning is; Enlightened Self-Interest

    If we could get a society where this was the primary personality trait a lot of our problems would start to solve themselves as the idea of personal profit to the exclusion of all else wouldnt be the overriding drive which it currently appears to be

    1. James Micallef Silver badge

      "what we need to do is to start with education"

      Yes, that is true. Unfortunately the education departments, teachers' unions etc are, in the majority, conservatively clinging on to early-20-th-century educational methods, teach the status quo because that is all they know, and have structures as rigid as a rusted robot with a poker up it's bottom.

      There are many great educators in the world. Most of them are outside of established school systems and need to be actively searched for. Many of the great educators stuck in the existing school systems are 'misfits' who are hated/feared by their colleagues because they are different / try to change things

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Industrial Education

        The fundamental flaw with our educational system is that it's perfectly suited to turning out little assembly-line robots. I've personal experience with a system totally unsuited to anyone else. It's completely impossible to fix it as it's a positively reinforced (positive feedback loop) system. Thomas Sowell has covered this extensively.

    2. Tom 13

      @AC

      Not even education. Before you can start on education you need a moral foundation. Half the people in my country don't want to hear that. Most of the people in yours don't. Or worse, they think they already have one when the truth is that is as corrupt as anything born in hell.

  6. SoaG

    A quibble

    "The participants in those events clearly could not tell right from wrong. "

    They knew (both the looters on the streets and the ones in office), they just don't care, and not just about right or wrong either.

    So many people don't care anymore, that, even those of us that still care in the choices of our own actions, lean more and more to the sentiment captured by Mr Flugennock above.

  7. Trigonoceps occipitalis

    As Robert the Architec says:

    "Can we fix it?"

    "Not a bloody chance!"

    1. Tom 13

      Re: As Robert the Architec says:

      Actually, you're the only people who can fix it. But each and every one of you has to fix it. Starting with yourselves. Yes, it will be a bloody hard slog. But it is the only way to fix it.

  8. Christoph Silver badge

    We need a country with a highly educated population and a healthy economy, that doesn't want anything to do with the Thatcherite rubbish that all the big three parties spout.

    And in a couple of weeks time we may have one. Just not in England.

    1. JonP
      Joke

      Is something happening in Wales then?

  9. Cipher

    Rewarding Failure...

    ...leads to more rewarding failure. If an institution or business fails, then so be it. Demand will prod Supply into replacing it. Or not. The people shouldn't be picking winners in the marketplace via taxes administered by people who have no experience in the matter.

    Decentralization of power is the key to survival, not 5 Year Plans.

  10. Daniel von Asmuth
    Childcatcher

    "politically unstable, if not ideologically opposed to western democracy"

    I suppose this is referring to the North-Sea oil wells, that may soon fall into the hands of the Republic Of Scotland.......

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: "politically unstable, if not ideologically opposed to western democracy"

      I look forward to ISIS's efforts to take Aberdeen

      1. DocJames
        Joke

        Re: "politically unstable, if not ideologically opposed to western democracy"

        They wouldn't manage the length of Union St before deciding it's too cold, no matter how much oil there is in the North Sea.

        And don't they already have enough oil of their own?

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sport osa similar discussions...

    ...with US centric viel, due to writer's home country but still people around the world participate in discussions... See 'the archdruid report' - there is sort of similar but different viestiä of there things...

  12. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    "was carried out personally by Richard Feynman"

    Feynman's own essay on the subject is quite clear that he was tipped off by someone else and merely provided the media presence necessary to put the evidence into the public domain. I'll stick my neck out here and say he'd be a little upset at the way popular culture has deified him. He enjoyed the limelight, but he'd have hated the thought that personalities might be bigger than either evidence or a decent bit of research by a competent nobody.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "was carried out personally by Richard Feynman"

      "Feynman's own essay on the subject is quite clear that he was tipped off by someone else and merely provided the media presence necessary to put the evidence into the public domain"

      You mean he actually read the emails that the engineers send back up to management, who totally ignored them.

      'Managers of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ''exaggerated the reliability of the space shuttle to the point of fantasy''' ref

      1. Smooth Newt
        Mushroom

        Misplaced incentives

        In many cases the problem is that the group which chooses to take the risks that eventually leads to the failure is not the same one that suffers the consequences. Hence the downside of failure for them is disproportionately small.

        I bet those NASA managers wouldn't have been so relaxed about the reliability of the Shuttle if they were the ones who were going to fly on it.

        1. DocJames
          Windows

          Re: Misplaced incentives

          I bet they would have been just as relaxed. I think they genuinely didn't have a clue (see icon), and their cognitive dissonance is doubtless going to be the subject of a future article (I hope).

        2. Johan Bastiaansen

          Re: Misplaced incentives

          I couldn't agree more.

          A stable, self correcting system would require that people who make the right decisions and are contributing to society, can reap, at least part off, the benefits. And people who make bad decisions, especially when they do that on a regular basis because their decisions are based on an incorrect mental model, have to face the consequences.

          When the same people, or the same caste of people, is in charge long enough, they will try to disconnect from reality, and from the consequences of their actions. This is something a society can not allow.

          1. Tom 13

            Re: they will try to disconnect from reality

            I'm not even sure it is a case of "trying" so much as it is something that happens. People start deferring to you, doing favors, etc. Eventually you come to think of it as natural, perhaps even the natural order of things. From what we see with Congress on this side of the pond, within 10 years it is rare to find someone who has not been transformed by it.

        3. Tom 13

          Re: Misplaced incentives

          So, do you think it's time to implement a bunch of welders pools*? Or are there just too damn many managers for that to be effective either?

          *On early submarines (maybe to this day) all of the welders who worked on the sub had to put their name into a pool. One name was drawn and that welder accompanied the sub on its first at sea trial.

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

  13. Martin Summers Silver badge

    Call Up

    Would the author of this article and all commentards with up votes only, please proceed to senior political office forthwith. Thank you.

    1. Cipher

      Re: Call Up

      Sorry, but I was raised not to associate with known liars and thieves. This precludes any thought of running for political office...

      1. Martin Summers Silver badge

        Re: Call Up

        Fair point. But also the reason why we will never be rid of them.

  14. Graham Marsden
    Holmes

    It's the money, stupid!

    So many of the the issues described can be traced back to a simple source: Money.

    Either you have people who are too interested in making money for themselves and their mates to worry about the effects of what they're doing or there are the people who want to and are trying to sort out the problems, but who are told "that's too expensive, do what you can with half the money and, fingers crossed, it will all work out".

    Eventually risky practices will be fixed, but usually only after something has gone so catastrophically wrong that they cannot be ignored any more and then, suddenly, money is no object in rectifying them.

    Of course only *those* particular problems are fixed, it would be too expensive to sort out *all* the issues (at least until they lead to another disaster...)

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: It's the money, stupid!

      Cui bono

    2. P. Lee

      Re: It's the money, stupid!

      >Eventually risky practices will be fixed

      Now there's a bit of groundless hopefulness!

      It won't be fixed because reward is divorced from risk. The best way to get paid a lot as a manager is to hide the problem while sucking the company dry. The company fails and you walk away nicely insulated. Salesmen sell subprime mortgages because their commission doesn't depend on the profitiability of the mortgage. That's madness. People can invest in companies, pull out a dividend and profit while the company is ramping up its liabilities in secret. As long as you sell your shares in time, there is nothing to stop you benefiting from the unethical practises - in fact, there is a driver for you to encourage unethical practises as long as you can get out quickly.

      Simply, the risk accrued by the institution does not reside with those controlling it, and hardly with its owners/shareholders either who can ditch and run at a moments notice. No-one is liable. This is why limited-liability companies used to be banned in England at a time when ethics were more important than profit.

      As has been noted, debt is seen as a good thing... because it enables faster cash accumulation through investment. Sadly, its almost impossible to stop its abuse and it is a complete millstone. It drives house prices sky-high for example. The economy would be far more solid if everyone had to save and then buy. Slower to grow, certainly, but far slower to fail.

    3. Tom 13

      Re: It's the money, stupid!

      That's merely the last instantiation of the problem. The root cause of the problem is the lack of a common moral framework for society. Until you address that issue you are only prescribing aspirin for brain cancer.

  15. OzBob

    Has anyone noticed

    how much larger the disasters are getting? How long before we have "the big one" which wipes out life as we know it? Genetic engineering of crops causing famine, large hadron collider "rebooting" the universe, icelandic volcano starting a new ice age. The Emmerich Brothers are the new Nostrodamuses!

    1. veti Silver badge

      Re: Has anyone noticed

      Actually, no.

      I see wars and atrocities breaking out, but in terms of the costs in money and disruption and lives? - nothing in the past 70 years has come within an order of magnitude of World War Two. Volcanoes erupt, but they don't do anything like as much damage as they once did (think Pompeii). Ships sink - 193 people died on the Herald of Free Enterprise, but that's a small fraction of the number that died on the Titanic. Outbreaks of disease kill thousands, but none in recent history can even begin to compare in impact with pre-modern plagues. Even the much-hyped Global Financial Crisis of 2007 onwards wasn't a patch on the Great Depression of 1929 onwards.

      So disasters getting larger? I think you're being deceived by perspective.

      1. Denarius
        Unhappy

        Re: Has anyone noticed

        well spotted veti. Compared to the mass killings of Tamberlaine and a few others around that dark time, Adolph Schicklegruber and his commie mate Yosef were schoolboys. The assorted plagues of the last 2 millennia are way bigger than 1918. The we get into the real eco-catastrophies. End of Maya with 30 plus year drought. Earlier South American civilisations wiped out by multiple eruptions that cleared 200km areas of all life. The Bronze Dark age and Thera around 1400BC. In SE Asia Indonesian volcanoes wiped out indigenous civilisations under 2 meters of ash.. We have never had it so good, even in the 20th century. All of this culling of homo sapiens without a single anthropogenic green house to blame.

        I note the number of "Oh crap, we're doomed" stories are on the up from various sources, a few even credible. Might even be right, but for what it is worth, I agree with Tim W. It wont because we ran out of stuff. I suspect it the symptoms ElRegs noble commentards refer, such as risk and reward being disconnected are relevant, but mere symptoms of the underlying causes. I suggest the rise of materialism as a dogma rather than a useful approach might be a deeper cause for reasons materialists wont understand.

        1. earl grey Silver badge
          FAIL

          Re: Has anyone noticed

          Timur's mountains of skulls were greatly exaggerated for effect.

      2. Tom 13

        Re: Actually, no.

        I agree with all of them except the last example. I'm not so sure the current situation isn't exactly like the Great Depression. There are two main differences. 1. We changed the way we measure things, so the numbers don't look as bad as they really are. 2. Admitting things are really as bad as they are would put the final kabosh on the continuing rush to the socialist "utopia" our political and chattering classes adore.

    2. Anonymous Coward 101

      Re: Has anyone noticed

      If the Large Hadron Collider reboots the universe we would never know. Don't worry about it.

  16. ecofeco Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Hey, that's my line!

    "There will be another financial disaster: You can bank on it"

    There will be change and much as it has always been in history, the process won't be pretty. In fact, it will deadly to many.

    "Those who ignore history..."

    The best an individual can do now is to prepare. One doesn't have to become a survivalist fanatic, but being prepared for a state affairs that will be essentially an ongoing and protracted disaster that causes disruption of services such as food, water, and power, would be wise.

    ...and stay well away from the riots.

  17. DougS Silver badge

    Simple reason why risk is ignored

    Those who make the decision to accept the risk reap the reward when things go their way, but don't face the consequences when things go wrong.

    That's what happened with the financial crisis, that's what happened with the Space Shuttle, that's how the Iraq war happened. It is a very common problem that has no simple solution.

  18. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

    The final conclusion

    "Perhaps instead of being told what to do, we have to work it out for ourselves on an individual basis?"

    But isn't that how we got into this mess in the first place? Lots of people doing what they thought was best… with the result that people good at seeing and fixing problems became plumbers and engineers, people good at caring became health workers, and people good at parasitising became Captains of Industry and the Government?

    1. veti Silver badge

      Re: The final conclusion

      Have an upvote.

      This sort of cheap "individualism" is exactly what got us to this position. Distrust authorities? - then we'll take our information from whoever tells us what we want to hear, which means it's never been easier to "keep people in the dark". That's why 94% of Russians supported the annexation of Crimea, and approximately 50% of Americans thought Romney was on course to beat Obama despite every reputable poll saying the opposite.

      The trouble with this "work it out for ourselves" mantra is that it contains the unspoken assumption (must be unspoken, because speaking it would immediately reveal how stupid it is) that everyone's aims are all congruent, or at least consistent with one another, so if everyone relentlessly pursues their own interests, the result is "best for everyone".

      See Adam Curtis for a discussion of where that logic comes from and why it's fallacious.

      1. James Micallef Silver badge

        Re: The final conclusion

        Have to agree with veti here. One of the fallacies of modern democracy is that the sum of everyone's votes leads to some ideal, or even fit-for-purpose solution in government. This sort of solution works well in local affairs where people are intimately familiar with both the issues at hand and the people/solutions being voted for. It doesn't scale up well at all to millions of voters and highly complex issues

        1. codejunky Silver badge

          Re: The final conclusion

          @ James Micallef

          Surely that says a lot about the overreach of government and how their scope should be limited to our presence on the world stage and truly national issues.

    2. Tom 13

      Re: The final conclusion

      No it isn't. All of the catastrophes noted have a common element of governmental interference. Government by definition is not individuals doing what they think is best, but a committee of some small number of people (let's face it, even 537 people is small compared to the US [includes House, Senate, President, and non-voting congressional delegates.]) dictating how everyone else would behave. I hate to say it, but the reality is that somewhere in the NASA chain of command, somebody was saying "Do you think POTUS wants to hear we have to scrub the mission because it's too cold?" The answer of course should have been 'yes', but that is never the way it works out. Would Challenger have been delayed if Ronald Reagan wasn't planning to talk to Christie while she was in space? Probably. They delayed other missions for less. I know Reagan would have preferred a delay to what happened after the fact. I think he would have preferred it before the fact. But that's part of the problem: the people making the calls don't see all the possible outcomes.

      When I sit on committees people don't like it because I'm not just the guy who thinks the glass is half empty, I'm the guy who asks if the glass contains strychnine. But there are times when that level of disaster planning is appropriate.

  19. Long John Brass Silver badge

    I saw an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He floated the idea during the last financial crash, that instead of bailing out the banks etc ... The govt should have guaranteed everyone's savings & bought up any debt & just let the institutions fail. I suspect they would have spent the same amount of cash.

    If the manglement & share holders get burned by bad business practices they will start demanding better ones.

    As for oil ... Been reading lately about molten salt thorium reactors; If the hype is to be believed, they may supply the energy our technological & mobile society requires. An interesting idea is to look at the amount of energy available per head of population, historically as that energy supply has gotten larger & cheaper societies flourish

    There seems to be a large amount of Armageddonism going around lately (might just be my perspective) not sure it's entirely warranted. We have problems to be sure, but nothing that we shouldn't be able to solve. We are the thinking ape after all :)

    1. Denarius
      Unhappy

      @Long John

      Jon was not the first suggesting doing something different. Robert X Cringely put up a modest proposal that he thought would protect the relatively innocent (and poor) while not rewarding the financial goblins. Instead of bailing out bankers, pay off the dodgy mortgages. Banks get money and stay solvent,, the debt clears (the sensible goal) and people remained housed. He argued it would be cheaper than bailing out banks. Probably was a better idea simply because the Fed has given the banks a steady income for doing nothing but storing large quantities of printed paper and failing to do what banks are meant to do.

  20. willi0000000

    a (semi)modest proposal

    if i have to pick one item that could put the human race on the road to solving many of its problems it has to be education . . . by "education" i mean a good, mandatory, public education system . . . well and evenly funded across every city and town . . . reality-based with absolutely no political or religious bias injected into any subject . . . of the best quality that can be had.

    too much funding (in the US at least) is being siphoned-off to support private schools, charter schools and home schooling . . . none of which should receive any public funding . . . many argue that public schools are inadequate to teach their gifted children and this is often presently true . . . in a good system there would be resources and funds available for the gifted as well as those needing extra help (this could also take some of the sting out of attending "special class") . . . some argue that teachers are "too liberal" . . . too bad! . . . others argue that the sciences are taught without reference to their particular belief system . . . even more too bad!

    i've heard some say that they should be allowed to send their children to a private school as long as they are willing to pay for it themselves . . . i don't think so . . . i've observed that a major function of private schools is largely for the status of having attended . . . the other reason seems to be that the child will associate with "the right kind of people" . . . this usually means "the people who can help the kid get something" like that management gig with the "right" corporation and not have to associate with the riff-raff . . . i also think that it is much better to meet people from every part of the economic/political/religious spectrum . . . it helps civilize the little brats.

    imagine one generation, just one, who can grow up being taught things like enlightened self-interest, civics that includes civic responsibility (like voting) and logical and critical thinking . . . a generation that grows up knowing that there are "others" out there that aren't all that different from themselves . . . we will have essentially won the battle against ignorance and reformed our political systems in one swell foop.

    [yes, i dream . . . but i dream big!]

    1. Tom 13

      Re: a (semi)modest proposal

      Not a chance in hell. Government controlled schools are the cause of the problem not its solution. Private schools are the ones that got us through industrialization and produced our greatest thinkers. At this point, government has so much money polluting the system even so called private universities are under its thrall.

      If it weren't so insidious, I'd find you're willingness to impose your morality on others while claiming no one else should impose theirs on you amusing.

  21. dan1980

    The simple, bare truth is that bad practices are profitable.

    The corollary is that our whole society is setup to view profit as the ultimate good and therefore anything that increases profit is desirable and anything that jeopordises it must be stamped out.

    As a company/industry, all you have to do is complain that those (e.g.) minimum wage regulations/penalty rates/working hour restrictions are hurting your business and if only they were gone it'd be better for everyone. You'll have a swathe of politicians clamouring to 'cut the red tape' that is 'stifling industry' and 'hurting the economy'.

    It's okay - workers will actually be better off this way because the businesses will now magically thrive which means that they will end up hiring more staff and paying them better! Aren't 'market forces' great!

    All you have to do is look at the various financial instruments available to professional investors. It's obscene. The idea of public companies is to generate investment in the company, providing funds for the company to grow and as reward, provide the investors with a share of the profits.

    Instead, what we have now is whole industries (ours is a big one) run, essentially by 'Wall Street', laying off thousands of staff because their profits weren't big enough. How did we get to the point where a PROFITABLE company is more-or-less forced to drop productive staff members simply because some bunch of analysts essentially made an incorrect prediction about how muchprofit that company would make.

    How have we gotten here? Where trades are carried out with such blinding speed that shares and options and all manner of synthetic instruments change hands so fast that atomic clocks are needed to make sure it all happens in a timely fashion and where someone who has worked out how to get a signal 3ms faster than someone else can reap huge profits with ultra-fast, algorithm controlled trading.

    Those people aren't truly investing money in companies or growth or even the economy as a whole - they are making use of cold maths and intricate algorithms to jump of any mis-pricings and none of it benefits the wider community. It certainly doesn't contribute any stability.

    Any why is nothing done?

    Because bad practices are profitable.

  22. dan1980

    I thank the authour for this article - it is well written, like all his pieces.

    (but . . .)

    But, like many others, he seems think that politicians "mould themselves to what the public appears to want".

    Not so. They merely morph their faces and words to accord with what their focus groups and pollsters tell them the public wants. Sure, they will throw money at this or that initiative and talk about getting tough on something or other but they aren't in any hurry to go about reforming the banking system or anything quite so hard.

    The certainly aren't going to do anything that risks the injections of money from all the various mega-powerful industry lobby groups.

    The first step in any of this, therefore, is to severely regulate such funding.

    Remember, that to even get to the point of running for any election, you've got to have made your deals already, both to private interests and party power-brokers (who have their own interests).

    1. Denarius
      Thumb Up

      @dan

      indeed. Political activity of any sort should only be funded by human party members with a top limit fairly small to ensure political parties must be believable and seen as relevant enough to attract members. In short, the legal fictions known as companies need to be kept away from all political activity on pain of confiscation of their assets and serious painful punishment of their management and boards. Reducing legal protections enjoyed by board members for major obvious stuffups might also sharpen manglements focus on the job at hand. Finally, deal with the legal situation that demands companies must be functionally psychopathic.

  23. Anonymous Coward 101

    Recommendation

    The Blunders of Our Government, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe.

  24. tony2heads
    Unhappy

    Modelling the economy

    I am surprised that we still don't have any reliable model of the economy where we can test out the effects of changes (whether made by politicians - like taxes, or external like world commodity prices). A good model should of course be able to model what has happened in the past before attempting the future.

    The fact that many fund managers do no better than random picks suggests that we have no bloody idea about how markets work

    http://investingcaffeine.com/2012/07/08/experts-vs-dart-throwing-chimps/

    Until we do have a reliable model we should tell politicians to LEAVE IT ALONE.

    1. Tom 13

      Re: surprised that we still don't have any reliable model of the economy

      If you don't understand why we will never have a reliable model of the economy you should be nowhere near any important influence on it.

      Although it does appear that like a blind squirrel you have at least found one nut with your conclusion.

  25. LucreLout Silver badge
    Boffin

    People.

    You look to people to solve the problems you identify, yet it is people that are the problem. Capitalists look at socialists as unthinking idiots lacking a moral compass, which is how socialists view capitalists. Environmentalists look at anyone that doesn’t agree and thinks they’re ignorant or deluded, which is how everyone else looks at environmentalists.

    And so it goes. People don’t have a common morality, nor do they have common ideals.

    Taking taxes as a very simple example. Most people think taxes should be fairer. Most people disagree what fairer means. Some think it’s fair that they keep what they earn and you do the same. Others think it’s fair to take more from those that earn more as “they can afford it”. Others think it would be fair if everyone paid the same percentage above a tax free limit. Still others think it would be fair if everyone paid the same amount in pounds with anything over that being tax free.

    People, and so politicians, pull in different directions. Sometimes one group gets more weight behind it than another and they move things in their direction. Eventually they run out of steam and society moves in another direction, with nobody getting very far implementing their ideals.

    Direct taxes have reached the ceiling for what they can raise. Avoidance (not to be confused with evasion) will only increase from here, as working patterns change, and more people incorporate as small businesses such as IT contractors. The state, if it is to accomplish anything at all, must become significantly more efficient, doing more useful work for less actual money, which is directly at odds with the wishes of those working within it, who want more money for less work. Again, the problem is people.

  26. idiotsavant

    Nothing new here

    This is not an essay. I suppose that the next instalment could tie the large number of disparate strands together neatly into a coherent conclusion, but frankly I doubt it.

    Spending the first five paragraphs telling us how it's important not to just rant and complain about things, and then spend the whole of the rest of the piece doing just that doesn't help, but what really sinks this is the lack of focus. We have...

    - NASA tried to cover up after the Challenger disaster

    - Ships should have more safety features

    - Rioters and politicians are both bad

    - We have an underclass

    - The Church is hypocritical

    - News corp is in bed with the government

    - The Beeb turned a blink eye to child abuse

    - Economists know nothing

    - There will be more financial crises

    - To much greed can ruin a good thing

    - IBM sold stuff to the Nazis (indirectly)

    - The British state wasn't nice to Alan Turing

    - The British railway network isn't redundant enough

    It all sounds like someone in the pub half way through their third pint after a bad day. And as the author himself says, "one can actually keep going like this, but after a while it becomes tedious".

    The only thing that ties all this together, as far as I can tell, are the following claims:

    - Organisations serve their own interests first and foremost

    - Organisations and individuals are bad at risk assessment

    - Organisational change is difficult

    - Whistleblowing is dangerous and often ineffective

    This is supposed to be new, the defining feature of a "new age", no less. Sorry, but none of this is new. This is standard organisation theory, the study of organisations and bureaucracies and their many disfunctions, and there's a large literature going back at least to the mid-20th century on all this.

    Here's hoping that the proposed cure is more interesting than the diagnosis.

  27. Ian Johnston

    Railway risk

    Various inland lines that could have been put into service had been closed and taken up by people who were unable to assess risk

    No, they were closed and taken up by people who realised that there was no sense in keeping a railway line open in order to provide a diversionary route which has been closed once, for a few weeks in fifty years.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I guess what all this dissertation boils down to is that perhaps there's a reason no other animal on the planet has our level of what we call "civilisation": because in the end, it's unsustainable. It's an unahppy medium because it requires a level of trust that (a) deludes ourselves, (b) opens us up to betrayal, or (c) more likely, both at the same time.

    Put it this way. Machiavelli had a point. Government by one may have its faults, but when it comes to action, nothing's quicker to react (government by committee is terrible at anything short of an existential threat, and then it runs the risk of overreacting), plus since everyone knows who to blame, the Sword of Damocles helps remind the autocrat to keep things running.

    At the same time, a frequent thing we keep seeing is the idea of things becoming too big to manage. Try as we might, economies of scale can only go so far; physics increasingly gets in the way. But at the same time, so many people become involved that there's the problem of collateral damage (that's part of the "too big to fail" problem: let it fail and innocent lives are at risk--lots of them, meaning massive political consequences).

    I'm going to stop before I ramble too much, but to close I think we're on the brink of something big: whatever it is it's going to be nasty, and collateral damage is going to be a given, and no amount of preparation is likely going to help when it finally comes down. If your number's up, all you can do is put your head between your legs and kiss you arse goodbye. Thing is, as the losses mount, trust in the government weakens, and once that reaches the tipping point...

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