For those of you who haven't been following, this is how it goes: government appoints James Caan, a self-made millionaire and former judge on Dragon's Den, to be its "social mobility tsar". In his first public statement Caan makes the bold and admirable assertion that parents should resist the instinct to help their children up the career ladder:
It immediately transpires that Caan's two daughters both work for him. Cue a joyful and for once quite justified bout of jeering from the press.
Having said that, let me tell you where I am. Caan is clearly being foolish. It's not that he was hiding anything - his daughters' employment was public knowledge. He just appears to have a massive blind spot when it comes to seeing any inconsistency between his beliefs and his actions. That is, he appears to be a stranger to cognitive dissonance, which perhaps explains that unruffled demeanour. His subsequent attempts to justify himself have made things worse:
Yes, James, but the day before you were suggesting that parents ought to resist this innate feeling. That's a hard position to take when you're incapable of doing so yourself.
The self-delusion is staggering. But then, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Entrepreneurs are more likely to be self-deceiving than the rest of us. You need massive over-confidence to start a business which rationally you know is likely to fail. People who rise to the top in highly competitive fields are those who most adept at pretending the world is just the way they want it to be (or that if it isn't, they can make it so). That mindset, when combined with genuine talent, is great if you're in business or sport, but it's less useful in government, where cool analysis and patience are more important.
Mary Portas was another "tsar". This fatuous term, borrowed from America (and before that, imperial Russia), is meant to sound impressive but only points to the powerlessness of the position. Appointed to fix Britain's high streets, Portas came up with a scheme that, whether because it's innately impractical or because the government failed to support it, has failed. But so what - she's on to the next thing. Her career was never at stake. I say this not to criticise Portas, but to demonstrate the utter futility of giving someone a government role, knowing that they have neither the right abilities nor the motivation to see it through, just because their face is familiar to readers of Heat magazine.
The real problem the Caan affair exposes isn't nepotism. It's celebism.
“What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”
I have no particular interest in defending Mr Tillerson, or to engage here in a weighing up of how many billions of poor people are suffering or will suffer from the effects of global warming versus how many would suffer from a global economic slowdown. But I do think that this statement, on its own, is not enough to condemn him. That some people think it does points to a rhetorical confusion at the heart of the environmental debate which doesn't do supporters of action on climate change (of whom I am one) any favours.
Tillerson is right in this sense: it's the future of humanity that should matter to us, not the future of what we call the Earth. We are not, and nor should we be, on a mission to save the planet.
Let's remind ourselves of what this relationship - the one between us and the planet - is based on. Our planet came together from leftover bits of sun about 4.5 billion years ago. In its hot, molten youth it was covered in volcanoes and had the unfortunate habit of smashing into other planetary bodies (one particularly violent collision left the planet tilted to its current, rather louche angle, and blew out the lump of shrapnel we know today as the moon). After this early trauma, the planet cooled down, chilled out, crusted up, and got wet. At about a billion years old, the first microscopic cells of life appeared on the earth; a billion years later, photosynthetic cells started "giving back", as they say in Silicon Valley, pouring oxygen into the atmosphere, making the planet safe for yuppies, otherwise known as multi-celluar life forms, which really only got into their stride about half a billion years ago. A tiny proportion of these life forms became charismatic animals like lions and dolphins - and one of these new arrivals is known as homo sapiens (though only homo sapiens know this).Now, it turns out that this particular newcomer has very bad habits and appears to be intent on screwing up the biosphere that enabled it to exist in the first place. So it may very well be that it causes its own demise, possibly along with the demise of a lot of other species, including many of the charismatic, cuddly animals it professes to care about. But think about this from the planet's perspective: you've only barely got used to the idea that life exists on your surface (perhaps it's slightly uncomfortable, like having nits). You've seen different life forms, mainly germs, come and go. Then very recently, just now in fact, one particular species turned the heat up a bit. They ought to be careful, those guys. Can't be good for 'em. Oh well, yawn, time for a cosmic nap.
The point of this brief and unreliable history is that the planet doesn't want or need saving. It doesn't care what we do. It was here long before we arrived and it will be here long after we've gone. We've given it a narrative, a name ("Earth") and even a sort of hippy-dippy personality, sometimes known as Gaia. But the fact is, it's just a rock, in a gassy wrapper.
The argument shouldn't be about saving the planet versus saving humanity. It should be about the best way of saving humanity. We need to make it all about us.
If for any reason you regret Boris Johnson's victory over Ken Livingstone a year ago, just be glad that it's only a former mayor of London who issued this statement today:
First, why didn't he make this point after the 7/7 bombings, when he was mayor? I mean, it would have been stupid then too but it might have had a little more resonance as our troops were still engaged in Iraq. Who knows? Perhaps a residual sense of proportion and decorum, long since abandoned.
Third, why accept the stated motivation of people like the perpetrators of this act at face value and, in doing so, lend it legitimacy? Why treat them as serious geopolitical actors? That's what they long to be. Future terrorists may read into statements like Ken's all the justification they need. Why should we let them define our foreign policy?
The simple reason is that most Muslims, like most everyone, are not potential terrorists just waiting to be activated by the action of a government. It takes Ken-levels of parochialism and self-obsession to imagine that they are.
I hate to say I told you so (actually I love it, like everyone else) but when the twittersphere was exploding at news of swivelgate on Saturday I predicted that it would soon come to be seen as a storm in a wine glass.
So it has proved. After Cameron's solid Today programme interview this morning, the wagons have moved on. Nobody has been shot.
That's not to say that the affair hasn't left rancour and bitterness in its wake, among the press - whose members have been called liars - and possibly among Tory activists (I don't know any so can't comment, although I suspect they are more exercised about the horrifying prospect of a future queen getting engaged to lesbian corgi). But it's of the low-level, non-flammable kind.
One reason this didn't go far is that there was no tape, and hence no proof and no pictures or audio to go with the story. Another reason is that asking the public to judge who is more likely to be lying, politicians and journalists, is like asking a farmer to say which is more bovine, a bull or a heifer.
A third reason was the affair bore too close a resemblance to the Andrew Mitchell affair for it to be taken seriously. While I understand that it must be enraging to be unfairly accused of lying, the press rather dug their own hole when they led the public to believe that the allegations against Mitchell were almost certainly true, by reporting it with a heavy skew that way and penning endless editorials protesting that stout-hearted members of the constabulary would never tell lies, as had been shown beyond doubt in the Leveson and Hillborough inquiries, oh wait.
Over the weekend I saw a lobby journalist explaining that Feldman was in big trouble because this was just like the Andrew Mitchell affair, where "the perception" was that he said it, and the perception is all that counts.
He was, of course, missing the point (while blithely ignoring the role that he and his colleagues play in creating such perceptions), which is that insofar as they noticed, the public did clock that Mitchell turned out to be unfairly traduced. So now they think, well, if cops can lie, journalists can definitely lie, and who cares anyway, I'm off down the pub with Nigel Farage.
It is to Mitchell's credit that he successfully cleared his name, but it is Cameron who turns out to be the beneficiary.
Years ago I attended a talk given by the MORI pollster Bob Worcester, who told a story about a briefing he gave to the Labour shadow cabinet in the 1980s. Worcester explained to the assembled politicians that most of the time, they were wasting their time.
The majority of voters were already committed to one party or the other, and so it didn't make sense to target all voters with the party's messages. In fact, the UK's first-past-the-post system meant that only a few voters within a few constuencies really mattered - a number in the tens of thousands.
Worcester said that when he reached this part of his presentation, he heard someone around the table splutter. It was the shadow chancellor, John Smith. "If it's that few, can't we just bribe them?".
It's an axiom of modern politics that, at any one time, only a small number of voters are persuadable. Mitt Romney, speaking in private to an audience of, presumably, the already-persuaded, famously declared that 47% of the electorate would never vote for him. He also said that there were only 5-10% of voters who were open to moving across the partisan divide. Although candidates aren't supposed to speak this way, Romney wasn't actually saying much that a political strategist would find controversial.
But are voters really as locked into their views as modern political professionals assume? The political scientist Morris Fiorina has proposed that the polarisation of America's electorate is a myth. What's really happened, he argues, is that America's political parties have become more partisan and more extreme, and voters have had no choice but to choose between them, even though most retain a high degree of ambivalence and open-mindedness on the issues.
A recently published study from Sweden offers fascinating evidence that voters aren't as fixed in their attitudes as is commonly assumed. Like the U.S., the Swedish electorate is regarded as one of the most polarised in the world, albeit a step to the left overall. In 2010, when the Swedes (like the Brits) last held a general election, pollsters estimated that only about 10% of voters were undecided between the two coalitions competing for office.
In the run-up to the election, the researchers asked people in the street if they would fill in a questionnaire concerning their views on political issues. Participants were asked to indicate how certain they were of their political views, and their current voting intention, from extremely certain social democrat/green, to extremely certain conservatives.
They were then asked to indicate their positions on twelve salient political issues on which the coalitions held opposing positions. For example, "Gasoline taxes should be increased" or "Healthcare benefits should be time-extended". In collaboration with the participants, the researchers then tallied an aggregate score, indicating which political coalition the participant favoured, based on their responses to the policy issues. Finally, the participants were asked to indicate, once again, their voting intention for the upcoming election.
All reasonably straightforward. But here's the clever bit: one group of participants were tricked. While they were filling out the questionnaire, the researcher surreptitiously filled out another form with a pattern of responses that you would expect from someone of the opposite political affiliation, mirroring the skew of the respondent's answers but from the other direction. Using a sleight-of-hand, the researcher then attached this manipulated profile on top of the participant's original answers.
So when it came time to explain and justify their answers, the participants were doing so off a sheet that showed answers that were different to the ones they actually had given. If they previously thought the gasoline tax should be raised, they might be faced with explaining why they had indicated that it ought to be lowered.
The researchers' overall aim was to shift the participant's entire score into the opposite column, so that a left-wing coalition voter would end up with the profile of a right-wing coalition voter (imagine a confirmed Tory ending up with a political profile that indicated she was a strong Labour voter).
During the discussion stage, the participants were free to change their answers if they felt they didn't reflect their original opinion, and sometimes they did so (they would assume they had misread the question or marked the wrong end of the scale). If they did so consistently, they would nullify the the researcher's effort at shifting them to the other coalition.
Remarkably, however, the participants subject to this trickery didn't, for the most part, notice the apparent inconsistencies in their answers. Nearly half didn't correct any at all and most only corrected a few. Instead, many accepted and even justified, with apparent sincerity, opinions which were the opposite of the ones they originally held, or close to it.
Most strikingly, most participants ended up endorsing overall political profiles that put them in the opposite camp to the one they thought they were in, and many changed their voting intention. 19% went from expressing certain support for one coalition to becoming undecided. A further 10% moved across the full ideological span, from firmly right wing to firmly left wing. In total, almost half of these participants were willing to consider a shift from one coalition to the other (compared to the 5-10% that are usually thought to be persuadable). In a few minutes, the researchers had achieved what political leaders spend every day of every year trying to effect.
In one sense, that voters accepted a political profile putting them in the opposite camp wasn't surprising: after all, they thought they were looking at a summary of the answers they had just given. In another sense, it is extraordinary that a person's political identity can be so easily manipulated.
The American psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued convincingly that political affiliation is primarily about tribalism. Voters align themselves with the parties to whom they feel an emotional attachment, and are adept at inventing policy-based reasons for that attachment after the fact.
The Swedish study is a clever way of circumventing that attachment, because it moves in the opposite direction: it starts by asking voters to reason about policies and builds from there towards party affiliation. That this method can create such radically different results tells us something important about how voters relate to politics.
Politics is a more fluid business than it can appear. As the researchers put it, "the polls can be spot on about what will happen at the vote, yet dead wrong about the potential for change." Voters hold more nuanced positions, and are more open to reason, than the polls suggest or than politicians and the media tend to believe. It's not that voters have their minds firmly made up on the issues that they think their party has got right. It's that they choose their party label and assume that the issues will take care of themselves. But when they are forced to actually the consider the issues, they can be persuaded to change sides. Even without a bribe.
You can read the full study here.
"So you got someone lined up?"
"Yes, we do, and we're very confident in-"
"We heard the Real Madrid guy is on the market. Two European championships, two Premierships, Spanish and Italian leagues. He's the guy, right?"
"Er, no. He's going to one of our biggest rivals."
"Uh huh. So who you got?"
"He manages Everton."
"Small club. But big ideas!"
"What's he won?"
"Well, he hasn't exactly won anything..."
Personally I think the choice of Moyes is a good one. You can't read this without being tremendously impressed by Moyes's dedication, intelligence, creativity and (relative to resources) success. But boy, it's brave. It feels very much like Fergie's choice, and I wonder if one of the factors pressing him to retire now was so that David Gill, the retiring CEO and Ferguson's closest ally on the board, was still in the driving seat when the decision on succession was made.
But I'm interested in the wider question of why a company like MUFC might choose one kind of manager over another.
From a business point of view, Mourhino would have been by far the safer choice, at least on the surface. You could walk into a meeting with any shareholder and they'd be convinced he was the right guy before you sat down. A proven track record of success at the highest levels, a global reputation, no period of adjustment to the top level necessary: Mourhino would have been the closest thing to a guarantee of success and revenue growth over the next three years. If running a football club is about getting good results quickly, you want the guy who done the most winning in the last ten years.
But a successful business, according to another point of view, depends on more than than short term results. It depends, for its long term health, on something more intangible: call it values, or culture. Ferguson called it history. Whenever a challenger threatened United's dominance, or a player threatened to take a higher offer elsewhere, Ferguson would make reference to his club's history. He returned to it insistently. It was a way of saying, this club is about more than a chequebook, or one season's results, or a balance sheet. It's about values, memories, ethos: things that can't be bought or quickly produced.
It could have seemed old-fashioned and archaic, this insistence, in a world of global brands and profit projections - capitalism has a manic focus on the future, not the past. But Ferguson's focus on history turned out to be good for the business, and good for the club. That shouldn't be a surprise: many studies have found that culture matters. There's a strong link between a company's values and its long term performance. Barcelona and Bayern are examples of clubs whose strong cultures have enabled them to overcome the brutal logic of the market and achieve consistent success on relatively low wage bills. But because it's hard to measure and difficult to create, culture is often forgotten or ignored.
By choosing Moyes, MUFC plc are choosing a culturally based business strategy. Mourhino wouldn't have take as much pride in the club's history or care over its ethos as Ferguson did and Moyes will. Mourhino never really fitted in at Real Madrid, another club with a grand sense of its history, because he is too big a character not to clash with a club with a strong character of its own. He takes his own cultural ecosystem with him: buy Mourhino the manager, and you buy in the Mourhino worldview.This works well at a club at Chelsea, which long ago lost any sense of its own identity. Where there is a cultural void, Mourhino, and perhaps only Mourhino, can fill it.
But that's not the problem at Manchester United. The problem is finding someone talented enough to run the world's biggest football club, and humble enough to know that the club's values are more important to its success than he is.