Drinks Invite, Rules for radicals, What I'm reading
Rules for radicals, Amia Srinivasan, What I'm reading, Diane Coyle, Podcasts, ESG push-back, various links, and UnConference reflections.
Welcome to the new look newsletter. Still free and weird forever. Do let me know what you think about anything, am happy to hear from you. This week:
Drinks Invite, 30 Sep, London
Rules For Radicals
Raj Thamotheram looking for creative colloborators
Amia Srinivasan and attacks from the anti-woke
Diane Coyle’s latest book Cogs and Monsters, a review
More on what I’m reading + drinking
Even more ESG push back
This week, if you are in London I am co-hosting drinks - Speak Easy - with Ana Yang and team at the Sustainability Accelerator at Chatham House. 30 September, 6pm - register here. FREE.
It seems just the other day we were at the Unconference there. Draft notes are ready, (let me know if you want to view them), I will be rolling out blogs soon.
“The best, most engaging, most learning-rich conference I’ve been to in my life” from a participant at our Chatham House Sustainability Accelerator UnConference.
Why is this? Mostly, the conference format is driving this joy. The format is participatory.
You, the participants decide the questions and agenda. You use your agency and choice to leave discussions where you are not learning or adding to. If no one is debating what you feel is the crucial topic, you are empowered to call the debate yourself. There’s a timing outline but discussions can be as short (<10mins) or as long (hours) as you decide.
Here were some topics:
What future do we want?
Does/why COP matters?
How can business directly help communities everywhere with the just transition?
Government as CRO (Chief Risk Officer). Let’s discuss
Improving waste management globally (5-15% GHG)
Can progress be disaggregated from growth?
When will ESG be a redundant investment term (success!)?
Why doesn’t my mum/friend/neighbour understand?
The root cause of climate and society inequity
What does an interplanetary future look like and is that sustainable?
and many more…. short blogs, reports will be going out on many of these items soon.
Why a Speak Easy now? I am influenced by Anton Howes and the improving mindset (check out his substack on innovation and our podcast), but this is - to my mind - triggered by people talking to each other. This is emphasised by a recent working paper, Bar Talk1 suggesting that closing saloons in the US reduced patenting by 15%. That’s a big loss of intellectual capital. I also believe in the benefits of social “weak ties” and the ability to connect people together.
I am also thinking back to the podcast I did with activist Catherine Howarth. She shares her activist journey as well as many other insights on investment from her civil society point of view.
Catherine mentioned the work of Saul Alinksy in building community and rules for radicals2. Many start-ups also talk about this in their language about building community and it is one of the intersectional ideas with being on a mission or purpose-led.
Alinksy’s work on empowering the poor seemed to be often built around “organise, organise, organise” here are his first 6 rules:
"Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have."
"Never go outside the expertise of your people."
"Whenever possible go outside the expertise of the enemy."
"Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules."
"Ridicule is man's most potent weapon. There is no defense. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage."
"A good tactic is one your people enjoy."
I also find parallels with this with Julia Lovell thinking about how Maoism has influenced the world.
My friend Raj Thamotheram - a positive maverick - is looking for story creatives to colloborate on thinking about global vaccine equity. Let me know if you are interested in finding out more and linking up with him. He writes:
Given the repeated failure of governments to do what’s needed, most recently the Summit convened by President Biden, now is surely the time for all those who do care to move into a well targeted, activist mode with less paralysis by analysis (ie less “Barack Obama” and more “Stacey Abrams”).
What I am listening to….
Even though I have started my own podcast, I seldom listen to them myself as I find them slow. I read faster. (I don’t listen to enough music either). Still, it’s a form I’ve started using so I should engage and I have begun to discover more about the form. My own structure is the long-form discussion pod where I try to find out the “best version” of my interviewee and their world view. This is a fairly niche form across the whole pod space (from what I can tell).
My go to pods in this regard are Ezra Klein and Tyler Cowen and to some extent Joe Rogan, Adam Buxton with an outside nod to Lex Fridman.
Let me know any pod recommendations. Especially if they have transcripts.
Ezra has a large platform at the NYT and a progressive centre-left world view but with open mindedness.
Tyler has a libertarian leaning world view and includes humanities thinkers maybe with more niche thinkers than Ezra.
That’s where Joe is very good as well. Ezra and Tyler are high art leaning pods. And Joe is low art - in a good way - leaning.
I’d love to find a long form female all round pod, not with a particular angle (cf Guilty Feminist).
There are many good niche pods or thematically specific pods eg autism (1800 Seconds on Autism), Guilty Feminist, How to Fail which for entertainment, or advocacy, are in some ways better than long form discursive.
Ezra and Tyler (and Joe) are the new era intellectuals talk shows for our times taking over from fallen from grace likes of Charlie Rose.
This brings me to Amia Srinivasan. One of the leading living philosophers in the world. If you don’t believe me (or Tyler), you might believe Oxford University.
I have to admit I do not comprehend all of Amia’s writing. Her essays on pronouns, Octopus, termites and whales - have brought me insight and I read much of her work as I attempted to invite her to my podcast (which as a super star celebrity philosopher she graciously declined.)
But she did go on both Ezra Klein’s and Tyler Cowen’s podcast. If you listen to both and her interview in the Paris review you have a scope of her thinking. They are very different even if nominally about the same set of essays.
A learned friend thinks the recent essays are no good but her podcasts have certainly provoked my thinking.
Perhaps even more meta is the response to Tyler’s podcast. Those interested in the tylerverse tend to lean libertarian and what I’d say as anti-woke. Tyler himself had to blog a partial defense of his podcast which I view as very unusual.
His first point seems well made that (defiant?) females seem to evoke more push back then the equivalent men. Perhaps making Amia’s point all the more clearly.
In any event, my podcasting “strategy” is mostly randomness + curiosity but if you think you know women who’d be up for a podcast would be very happy to chat with them.
Upcoming but not yet held (so let me know any questions):
Epidemiologist, Meaghan Kall3 - ask us about COVID!
Arts impact investor, Fran Sanderson
Poet and investor, Jason Mitchell
Disability studies academic, Dan Goodley
In “post-production” - a very fancy of saying I have not uploaded them yet.
Philosopher, Jonathan Wolff; former COO and SPAD, Clare Montagu.
Economist Diane Coyle is the Bennett Professor of Public Policy Cambridge University. She co-directs the Bennett Institute where she heads research under the themes of progress and productivity. Her work has touched innovation, technology and intangibles; sustainability, inequality and measuring beyond GDP. Her latest book, Cogs and Monsters is published in October 2021.
We discuss the challenges of the current narrowness in economics both in terms of the diversity of people it attracts and the paucity of wider ranging interdisciplinary thinking.
Diane’s 1997 book (The Weightless World) was prescient over many technology, innovation and intangibles trends but sustainability was a missing hole. We discuss sustainability and what she felt she missed and what she got right.
Diane critiques degrowth ideas while noting the challenges which catalyse that type of thinking.
We chat about measurement challenges in an intangible world and how while GDP might have measured more usefully in the past but that in the present it misses many areas of value. In passing, Diane critiques happiness indices and elements of the human development index.
We address the UK’s productivity challenges (but don’t expect we have solved it?!) and conclude it is not only a measurement challenge.
We discuss inequality and “superstar earners” across all sectors and possible solutions.
Diane over-rates / under-rates:
Universal Basic Income
A Job guarantee policy
Arrow’s impossibility theorem
Running the economy hot.
The New Zealand Prime Minister
We discuss minimum wage and tax policy. Win-win investment ideas and end with what a productive day looks like and advice for would-be economists.
Apple Podcasts: https://apple.co/3gJTSuo
What I am reading…
Diane’s Cogs and Monsters. Review here.
Dan Goodley. Disability and Other Human Questions, Amazon link. Goodley argues that the study of disability is of great importance in its own right but also has much to offer us all in considering what it means to be human in the 21st Century. Chapters address questions such as 'who's allowed to be human?'; 'are human beings dependent?'; and 'what does it mean to be human in the digital age?' and respond to these questions in ways that get us thinking about how we might productively engage with, listen to and understand one another.
I’ve not thought deeply enough on disability from a philosophy point of view. I basically read about the social model of disability. Thought - that makes sense and left it there as I live the co-carer life with an autistic child. But every now and again I come up and breathe for a few moments and think more seriously about what society is saying/doing/being to c. 20% of its humanity. Dan comes at some of his work from a Marxist angle, which I find challenging to some degree. Even more important to engage with it.
If you’ve ever pondered what disability might tell us about being human, check out the book.
Homesick. Why I live in a Shed, Catrina Davies. I am very much a city creature, and even some of the nature things I love are centred in the city eg. mudlarking on the river; although I have just this week walked two miles around the canals of Hemel Hempstead. The fact I think of that as a nature triumph probably says something. So thinking about people who live much closer to nature, or who live with so much less stuff and could be degrowth I find importantly challengingly. Catrina writes lyrically while never being twee.
Ruth Ozeki - The Face, A Time Code. She is a zen priest and she studies her face for hours at one stretch and produces a meditation. Forget a mindfulness app, this is zen in true action or non-action. Amazon link.
Fifty Sounds, Polly Barton. There are sounds/words in Japanese that are mimetic. They convey an atmosphere, idea, sound but don’t in themselves necessarily mean anything as a literal word meaning. Polly uses these sounds and exploration of them in Japan to produce an insight into Japan, language and a philosophy of being. If you love language, and, or Japan this is brilliant. If you are simply curious, it should be eye opening. Amazon Link.
More on the ESG push back. ThenDoBetter reader and former Timberland COO, Ken Pucker now at Tufts has two opinion pieces following on from Tariq Fancy and Desiree Fixler pushing back against ESG. He focuses criticisms on “real-world impact” (similar to Tariq) and then tackles how accountancy can not save the world (although cf. Coyle trying to do the work on valuing natural capital). Also forth coming my conversation with philosopher Jonathan Wolff on how to value life.
Agree or disagree, it’s worth noting the arguments and then seeing where Keith (and to an extent Tariq) are seeing success. I’d would summarise them as impact investing as in direct primary funding of debt or equity capital for innovation and broadly defined sustainability impact (much of everyone’s arguments revolve around climate but eg health, education and many other aspects of human life are important as well); share holder engagement both on business model matters and via policy. The cost of capital arguments might be red herrings, but the influence of (green) consumer choice is noted as a real effect.
I note I still haven’t seen many eloquent counter points from Team ESG. Jon Hale at Morningstar did offer some. (Maybe I will get round to collating some, but am too busy actually doing - sorry-not-sorry).
Anyway from Ken:
The first, The Trillion Dollar Fantasy: Liking ESG Investing to Planetary Impact explores the 20 year run up to the current ESG investing frenzy. The article tracks the Kabuki theater (BY: was that especially for me?!) phases of the faint now manifests. After tracking the history of the movement, the article highlights the order of magnitude gaps in sizing ESG, the lack of evidence of alpha and the lack of trying to find evidence of impact.
The second, Heroic Accounting: New Proposals for Monetizing Corporate Planetary Impacts are Alluring, Impossible and Perilous asks if dollarizing externalities is possible, moral and a good idea. Notwithstanding the work at Harvard (IWAI), the Value Balancing Alliance, Engine #1 and the Capitals Coalition, we signal our concerns with the movement and suggest that there are more leveraged solutions at hand.
A counterpoint to all of this is a recent Tyler Cowen column arguing for the virtues of GDP (because at a macro level it correlates so well about the things we care about) and suggesting the scale of comparability is important. (Why so much Tyler Cowen? Well, he’s just so normally contrarian to mainstream ESG and so well read, he acts as such a good counterpoint public intellectual to refer to).
While many rigourous studies are lacking, Cowen suggests a study which puts GDP cost of our climate trajectory at 10% of GDP in 2100. This is major, and doesn’t account for tail risks, but is an adaptable and manageable amount on this analysis.
Cowen argues for a carbon price and innovation, but his economist hat always thinks about trade-offs.
Still rounding this section off, mostly I find even ESG skeptics do not believe that ESG thinking does active harm. It’s only the Tariq Fancy position that ESG provides cover for government inaction. I remain unconvinced that this is true.
There are many reasons for inaction - in particular on climate - and part of it may well be that governments believe (or even are) reflecting the median voter. Recall, that 30-35% of the US do not believe in man-made climate change.4 Survey from Yale below.
The pandemic in many ways has not been a good signal for global climate co-ordination or action. While I am unsure that biopharma companies should be responsible for paying for vaccines, they are probably uniquely placed to provide the technology and it’s only the small matter of world governments to find say $100bn to $200bn to fund it. A small cost on a global basis, with a large return.
(Cf. GDP discussions!) $200bn is a mere $0.2 tn out of $80tn global GBP and only about 1% of US GDP. Hm.
There is also the argument that biopharma was uniquely placed to make this argument to world governments.
Still, the flipside to using simple economic trade-off thinking is that $200bn investment in vaccines is an extraordinary high return and should be done.
I was going to mention the drinking. I’ve been drinking a lot less alcohol. Instead I recommend kombuchas and oolong teas.
Links this week and archive:
Actually much more generally on links in my twitter feed. Highlight below.
Yale Climate Communication: https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/