There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies
Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620
Consider this statement:
Services will continue to make a growing contribution to economic activity in Australia. It is therefore important to remove unnecessary restrictions on service provision — particularly barriers to entry and expansion that impede competition.
This is strategisation. The passage proposes a prefered action in the context of some overarching development of strategic significance. But if you pay careful attention, the desirability of doing the proposed thing doesn’t hinge on the strategic context at all. This is usually a feature not a bug of economic policy – it’s highly modular. Competition is generally speaking a Good Thing (though there are important exceptions to this which we leave aside for the sake of the argument here). But it’s rare that the desirability of strengthening competition depends on whether something is a growing market or not. 1 It’s a little unfair to pick on this report – the Draft Harper Review of Competition Policy as this is pretty standard stuff. 2
Anyway, the Harper Review Draft Report tells us that it “identifies three major forces affecting the Australian economy that will influence whether our competition policies, laws and institutions are fit for purpose”. They are
The rise of Asia and other emerging economies provides significant opportunities for Australian businesses and consumers, but also poses some challenges. A heightened capacity for agility and innovation will be needed to match changing tastes and preferences in emerging economies with our capacity to deliver commodities, goods, services and capital. We need policies, laws and institutions that enable us to take full advantage of the opportunities offered.
Our ageing population will give rise to a wider array of needs and preferences among older Australians and their families. Extending competition in government provision of human services will help people meet their individual health and aged care needs by allowing them to choose among a diversity of providers.
New technologies are ‘digitally disrupting’ the way many markets operate, the way business is done and the way consumers engage with markets. The challenge for policymakers and regulators is to capture the benefits of digital disruption by ensuring that competition policies, laws and institutions do not unduly obstruct its impact yet still preserve traditional safeguards for consumers.
The third item – digital technology – really is of strategic significance to how competition policy is crafted. But the other ones are pure strategisation. A good test is to rewrite the propositions in the negative. Do you think the Harper Review would have changed anything it thought or wrote if Asia and other emerging economies were not rising? “Harper review says competition policy much less important because 3 so things will be hunky.” Enough said.
Here’s some more – this time from Accenture.
The report says “seismic economic and demographic shifts are forcing governments around the world to re-imagine the way they design and deliver public services”. The challenge is acute in Australia where the cost of delivering public services at current levels will grow to an additional $54 billion a year by 2025 and the efficiency dividend – asking agencies to do more with less – has run its course.
Accenture believes the public sector must now undertake “a transformation that would require public service leaders to make a step change and adopt a more entrepreneurial mindset”.
The first paragraph isn’t pure strategisation because it’s making a factual claim – which may be true or false. The second paragraph is strategisation – or perhaps to make the word uglier it might be called ‘BurningPlatformisation’! And there’s lots of it about. That one about how the public sector is being subjected to ever increasing expectations with ever reducing budgets and so will need to make a step change (which we all know is technically equivalent to a paradigm shiftlet) has been doing the rounds since at least the age of Tony Blair.
If you agree with me so far, we both think that this is a silly mannerism. But does it matter more than that? I think it does, not in itself, but in the sense that strategisation is a signifier not just of a degradation of language – which is a serious business because language is the medium through which we think – but also of a certain set of assumptions about how one deliberates on and makes decisions. I’m in the process of writing more about each point, and you, gentle reader, will be the first to know my further thoughts as they become ready for publication.
In short, on the first point strategisation represents the primacy of rhetoric (you know all that stuff about ‘our narrative’)4 over thought. That’s pretty problematic right there. I came across a great expression of Charlie Munger the other day “Take a simple idea and take it seriously”. Simple ideas are powerful. You can drive them a long way quite independently of the existing state of the literature and when you’ve taken a simple idea into some new pastures, it’s amazing how powerful it can be. Because it’s simple it’s not brittle – it’s implications are often easily seen and understood and often robust to different circumstances. But you won’t be able to ponder a simple line of thinking and follow it’s implications on its merits when you’re mind is deranged by bogus strategising.
I realised in a discussion with someone yesterday that the upsurge in interest in a universal basic income (UBI) could be somewhat influenced by a kind of strategisation, though it’s far from as cut and dried case of it as the material above. Why all the interest in UBI? Partly because the rise of the robots is being understood as a new phenomenon. And it suits those who pose as Big Thinkers to respond to this with a Big New Idea.5
In fact, to the extent that this phenomenon unfolds, it will unfold through time and its impact – in rendering some skills obsolete and possibly further increasing returns to capital at the expense of labour – is the kind of impact we’ve seen before. And we can vary our payments and tax systems to address these problems. Of course UBI is a systematic rearrangement of those systems, so that’s all well and good. It should be considered on its merits. But if UBI is a good idea, it has been for some time. FWIW (which is not much as I haven’t thought about it that much), I expect it’s better to keep plugging away with our ‘deserts’ based tax and welfare system. Anyway, I don’t want to make too much of this – it was just a thought.
But why do people engage in strategisation? As I’ve argued above, it pollutes our minds with extraneous nonsense. But here’s the thing. It’s a particular kind of nonsense. It’s a kind of bullshit. As Harry Frankfurt puts it:
The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.
Strategisation is an attempt to pull strings to sit at the head table – with the cool kids – the movers and shakers – the James Packers and Lachlan Murdochs – in their Olympian grappling with the problems of the day. It tries to conjure around the author’s case an air of high strategic importance. Like I said, I’ll be writing more on this, but suffice it to say here that I think this introduces a kind of bias into the conversation in which some ideas become freighted with status, whilst others are for the little people. Pretty soon you’re talking VerySeriousPersononomics.
And please feel encouraged to provide additional examples of strategisation in comments below.
- 1. It’s true that, if a market is growing a little larger, the issue of its efficiency could be regarded as a little more important, but the general story is that wherever there are efficiency gains to be had, we should try to have them.
- 2. I’m citing the draft report here because I made a note of this for a future post long ago but I expect similar sentiments can be found in the final. Here’s some more strategisation:
Governments around the world know that to deliver for citizens, they must transform the services they provide. Aging populations are putting huge pressure on health and social services; educational systems need to equip young people with the skills for a technology-driven world; and the changing shape of cities is creating new demands on infrastructure. Many government services do not meet citizens’ growing expectations. These trends are contributing to public discontent.
- we’re not ageing/services contribution to GDP is falling
- 3. AKA “where’s our burning platform?”
- 4. Or at least one that’s not been implemented, even if the idea isn’t that new.