On Cars, And Corporate Dishonesty

Sometimes the dishonesty, the sheer venality of corporations, the extent to which they will break every law going if they think they can get away with it, takes even me aback. And I have been studying them at close range for almost four decades.

Volkswagen has been found to have been fitting special software in its cars in the US to deceive the authorities when they run environmental tests. When the cars are being driven normally, they pollute; when they are being tested, the software kicks in and those emissions reduce.

The VW board is meeting today to decide what approach to take to having been discovered with their hands super-glued to the bottom of the cookie jar. It is hard to think of more blatant corporate wrong-doing. The cars are built to a lower spec than users are persuaded is the case. They are presumably paying more than the car is worth, and the authorities are being fooled into thinking they are “cleaner” than they are, so allowing the manufacturer to save on costs and make a better margin.

On a scale of dishonesty, this is a long way ahead of, say, the food manufacturers’ nasty habit of cutting the costs of the ingredients that go into their product by reducing the size of the packaging and then charging the same, a long-running scam.

It is not too far short of saying, well, the brakes on our cars work most of the time. We’ll not mention the times they don’t. It’ll probably be all right. (This has happened.)

What baffles me is the mentality of the people who work for Volkswagen. These are real people, with, one assumes, the same ethical standards as the rest of us. It was a deliberate plot. Did someone one day say, if we fit this software we needn’t worry about environmental legislation? And did someone else say, oh, go on, then?

Did no one question the morality of such a deliberate deception? There must have been thousands in the know. Volkswagen is a huge company, producing almost 10 million cars and trucks in 2013.

Most corporate fraud starts off small, a bit of creative accounting here, some mild theft there. It then snowballs, either because the perpetrators see they can get away with it or because, as the business turns down, the accounts have to be more and more artfully manipulated to avoid the earlier wrong-doing coming to light.

This was presumably conceived from the off. Oh, the joy that it was dreamt up by the po-faced, self-righteous, environmentally aware Germans.


On MPs’ Past Indiscretions

“When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.” Remarks attributed to George W Bush, US President.

Some years ago I was at a black tie dinner with a friend who worked for one of the big City banks. He wanted to become a Tory Party candidate, and then an MP. The wine had flowed, and I pointed out that this would mean considerable scrutiny of his private life, scrutiny most of us would not welcome.

“After all,” I said, “who hasn’t when they were younger done something involving sex, drink, drugs or some combination of the three that would not look good on the front of tomorrow’s tabloid newspapers?”

He shook his head sadly. “I haven’t.”

We learnt this week that our Prime Minister had, on several occasions, smoked a joint when he was a student. That puts him in a vanishingly small minority, then. Or not.

He was present at social occasions where cocaine was snorted, though he never indulged. Again, a prosperous upper middle class media type, someone who circulated in the upper strata of society, was around class A drugs? Almost impossible to credit, surely?

I did not think there still existed anyone so out of touch, so terminally self-righteous, so confident of their own moral superiority, that they thought any of the above makes him less suitable as Prime Minister. Apparently there does. As to the story about the pig, I simply don’t believe it. There is no evidence whatsoever. If it was true, it would have come out before now.

If we insist on our politicians having committed no past indiscretions of any kind, we are going to end up with some very odd people running the country.

But listening to Supertramp, one of the few groups of that era still utterly beyond hope of rehabilitation? Now that’s unforgiveable.

On Teenage Nihilism, And Radical Islam

Anyone who has ever shared a house with a teenager knows they can be very silly indeed. Part of the act of growing up involves the adoption of daft, deliberately controversial, often nihilistic beliefs as a way of rebelling against authority.

When I was a teenager, this might involve growing your hair, going to live in a squat and getting into the underground scene, as it was then known, which generally involved a lot of drugs.

When I was at university, there were plainly individuals who had adopted extreme political views, mainly Trotskyite, as a rebellion against authority, as embodied by their prosperous, middle class parents.

There was not much damage done by all this. Those teenage Trots probably settled down as lawyers, accountants, whatever. Some may have gone into politics, but of a more moderate kind. Admittedly I knew two contemporaries who ended up with drug-induced schizophrenia and one gentle soul who died, subsequently, of a heroin overdose.

The Radio 4 programme had an item the other day about radical Islam, its pull on young Muslims, and the actions being taken by the authorities to prevent this. The reporter did not have to travel too far to find a few simpletons outside a school who said that, yes, they could see where Isis was coming from.

And one complete idiot who said he was tempted to travel to Syria to fight for the cause. And kill fellow Muslims, he was asked? Well, the ones he would be killing wouldn’t be proper Muslims, would they?

It is tempting to see this yet another example of teenage nihilism, one specific to young Muslims. Except for two big differences. There are people in their community encouraging them. And the consequences can often be lethal, to those teenagers and to others.

On Incompetent Leadership

I have met an awful lot of business leaders and a fair few politicians. It goes with the job. Some have become friends, or as close as they can be in what is essentially a professional relationship.

A number have been outright bullies. Several have, in my view, met the psychiatric definition of a psychopath, someone lacking affect, the ability to empathise with a fellow human being. This is the quality that prevents most people, most of the time, from being too horrible to those around them. It is recognised that a lack of it, and consequent ruthlessness, can be useful in advancing in the world of business or politics.

Many of those bullies and psychopaths have been outwardly charming, keen to win over a business writer such as myself, but fairly easy to see through. I shudder at the idea of ever working for them.

The vast, vast majority have been male.

Now a study from Harvard Business School sets out to answer the question:  why do so many incompetent men become leaders?

The answer lies in the psychology of leadership, and of the led. We are fooled into believing men are better leaders than women because we are programmed to mistake confidence for competence. Manifestations of hubris, or over-confidence, are mistaken for leadership potential, and these are more common among men than women.

Groups, it has been observed before, have a tendency to elect “self-centred, overconfident and narcissistic individuals” as their leaders, the study says. Freud argued that a love or worship of a leader is a substitute for people’s ability to love themselves.

Over-confidence is one of the most common reasons for failure in business – the mega-deal that goes horribly sour, the belief on the part of a business leader that they are capable of more than they can actually achieve. They rise too high, buoyed up by their own mistaken belief in their abilities. And ours.

This answers the above question. The same characteristics that allow people to reach a position of authority, that over-confidence, for example, are exactly the ones that will make them fail. And they are less common among women.

On Corbynism, And Sweet Reasonableness

I recently had lunch with the chief executive of a global industrial company. He was raised in America and has a background in banking. None of the above would indicate a natural follower of Jeremy Corbyn.

He did, however, have a sneaking admiration for the Labour leader, and his handling of his first Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

If I were a Tory, or indeed, anyone who hoped to continue to live in this country much beyond the 2020 election, I would be a little worried by now. Time after time the electorate has made it clear they do not like the aggressive, point-scoring politics, the cheap jibes and abuse passing for political debate, practised in Westminster.

There was a vox pop on the Today programme this week making just this point. PMQs are a particular turn-off.

They particularly hate the baying and howling that accompanies any debate in the Commons, on however serious a subject. People do not conduct their everyday conversations like this. They simply cannot understand why their elected leaders have to sound like an out of control primary school class. (You do not have to know much about the psychology of crowds to realise why it is thus.)

Corbyn appeared at the dispatch box and spoke quietly and dispassionately. He produced a series of fair and reasonable questions from ordinary members of the public which he delivered in measured tones, and then listened politely to the answers.

Much of the commentariat, not greatly inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt anyway, thought it was a mistake, or a missed opportunity, or quirky eccentricity. Step outside the bubble and the reaction is likely to be rather different.

Don’t get me wrong. Corbyn and his acolytes do not have the core skills to run a political party, let alone the country, and they will continue to make terrible mistakes. But consider my chief executive. (Who, incidentally, said he would be on the first plane home after a Corbyn victory.)

A combination of the appearance of sweet reasonableness on his part, tooth-grinding attacks from that commentariat, and a few Tory blunders on the economy, not implausible, and the landscape may look a little different a couple of years hence. (Note John McDonnell’s apology re the IRA on Question Time yesterday, again couched in tones of sweet reasonableness.) People are not quite as horrible as their elected representatives think.

On Corporate Social Responsibility

A few years ago I was deputed to attend a breakfast meeting and contribute my thoughts on Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR. (Exciting work, indeed; no, I didn’t volunteer.)

This was the then modish practice whereby companies hired people to burnish their image by persuading customers, and the outside world, that they were more ethical than they might otherwise have seen. Many of the oil companies, for example, invested millions in this; it is known, derisively, as “greenwash” by those unconvinced by their efforts.

One of the companies at the forefront of all this was BP. They even invested in a new corporate logo that looked a bit like a flower. The company’s business continued to be the pulling of hydro-carbons out of the ground, which according to your view is a job essential to allowing our civilisation to continue in its present form, or a hideous eco-crime. (I tend to the first view.)

History does not record how many were persuaded by the company’s efforts that it was anything other than what it was, a global oil producer. Now Lord Browne, who used to run BP, has declared that the era of CSR is over, that it didn’t work anyway and that no one within companies much believed in it either.

I am reminded of that breakfast. When asked for my views, I suggested that CSR was merely a form of political correctness, and largely meaningless. I produced as evidence BP’s decision to rename one of its Gulf of Mexico oil fields, which had been known as Crazy Horse.

This was out of respect for the Sioux leader and victor over Custer at Little Bighorn, after requests from Native Americans/First People/whatever we were then allowed to call the people known in my childhood as Red Indians. I said it was a foolish, empty gesture.

A man a couple of places down from me became restive. It turned out he worked for BP and was the executive responsible for the decision to rename the field. Oddly enough, he didn’t agree with me.

The joke is, though, that the geologists who named the field were not thinking of the Sioux leader. They actually named it after Neil Young’s backing band.

On The Minimum Wage

A while back one of our offspring found themselves in a part-time holiday job in the services industry. It swiftly became obvious that the employer was not only not paying the legal minimum wage, he was not even paying the amount his employees had been promised.

Said employer operated a business in one of the most affluent areas in the country, and was charging customers accordingly. Our offspring did not need the money to stay afloat; some colleagues, though, were supporting families on that sub-standard wage.

Let’s just say the authorities became involved, and a degree of back pay was handed over.

There is a wonderful row raging back and forth this week, with some bosses of big quoted companies saying the requirement to pay, to over 25s only, a living wage will impact on their profits and require them to put up prices. This view is also held by the employers’ organisations. Oddly enough.

Some also claim it will put upwards pressure on wages generally, because employees slightly up the food chain will not want to be paid the same as those at the bottom.

Business supporters of the Government are in a bit of a quandary, though, because the measure was brought in by Prime Minister In Waiting George Osborne. Therefore other employers say, grudgingly, that it will put pressure on profits but it can be absorbed.

My take: if your business model requires you to pay poverty level wages, possibly topped up by tax credits, your business model is unviable. Threatening to put up prices is the equivalent of putting a gun to the customer’s head and saying, give us the money or he or she gets it.

Osborne’s move shows why he will be in charge by the 2020 election. One, it scuppers Labour’s claim to be the only party of the poorly paid.

Two, it chimes with people’s feelings that, as they get more prosperous, that prosperity should be spread around. And their guilt that the person serving them with expensive drinks, coffee, meals, consumer goods, whatever, that they can increasingly afford is being exploited. Or on a zero hours contract.

Bear in mind that many of us are launching our offspring onto the jobs market, whether part time or at the start of their career, and are equally concerned that they are being exploited. See our experience, above.

Four, it sends a dog whistle message. Don’t think unscrupulous employers can import appallingly paid migrants, exploit them and do you out of a job. We won’t let them.

Pure genius.

On Migration

I am the descendant of an economic migrant, a thought that, oddly, only occurred to me for the first time a couple of days ago. Admittedly, my maternal grandfather only left one part of the UK for another. He did, however, choose to quit a life of dire poverty in Dundee to seek work in London and showed no desire to return to his homeland.

He became an electrician, which presumably deprived a native Londoner of a job. He also drove around keeping the lights on during the Blitz, family history has it, a dangerous job, so he could be seen to have repaid his debt to his adopted country.

I am not going to indulge in narcissistic hand-wringing over that picture on a Turkish beach, except to point out that thousands have been dying trying to enter Europe from less favoured countries for decades, some aged three or less, one assumes. Only those unaware of that fact have the right to appear shocked.

The problem is that the distinction between an economic migrant and a refugee is a difficult one. Clearly, if you have been driven from your home by the Isis barbarians you are the latter, and deserve fair and kind treatment wherever you end up. That picture will at least help bring home to people in this country, and elsewhere, our humanitarian obligations.

The tough-looking young men in designer gear violently disrupting Eurotunnel at Calais are plainly economic migrants, as interviews with most of them concede. At present another human catastrophe is taking place in Budapest, with migrants of both kinds being denied access to the trains to Germany and Scandinavia.

Under the absurd rules that govern the EU, if they should be registered by the authorities in Hungary, that is where they must remain. They do not want to stay in Hungary. There are few jobs, and the language is impossible. (Trust me, it is – I’ve been there.) Nor are they welcome.

But what of someone who arrives in the EU from Eritrea, say? This is a proper little hell on Earth. Drafted into the army for one of its endless border skirmishes, you could remain in uniform for a decade. Anyone with any sense would want to leave. Are they, then, an economic migrant or a refugee from political persecution? Or a bit of both?

There are any number of awful places where people are suffering around the world, some of them former Soviet states on the borders of Europe. Being a Roma in Hungary or Romania is by all accounts not a lot of fun, either. Is it conceivable that the UK, or even the EU, could take all of the inhabitants who want to move? I have heard it suggested.

The requirements of the various member states are different. The UK saw a third of a million net migrants last year and is already one of the most crowded, in terms of head of population per square mile. Demonstrable fact. Look up the numbers if you don’t believe me. Germany is losing population, especially in the rustbelt east, which explains why it is so welcoming.

We in the UK have been receiving disproportionately more migrants because we enjoy several advantages over other destinations. Our economy is the strongest – no one migrates to Greece to get a job. Our language is understood by large numbers of migrants, not least the relatively well educated ones fleeing Syria and Iraq, who are unlikely then to be an economic burden.

We are going to have to take an awful lot of the latter, while trying to dissuade those who want to come here purely for economic reasons. Except that the mechanisms for distinguishing between the two, in terms of the legal process and border controls, are hopelessly unfit for purpose.

Meanwhile the politicians compete to make the most extravagant displays of compassion. Including the Labour leadership candidates, who will not have to cope with the consequences, political or social, of their promises for five years at least. If ever. Cameron looks paralysed, and understandably so.

He knows that we can hold two opposing views on this, simultaneously. The need for compassion, and concern over shrinking resources, schools, hospitals, doctors. Triangulate that.

Sometimes I despair. Perhaps I should stick to the arts and music. And ranting about the transport network.

On Croatia

When I first started to travel to Europe, in the mid-1960s, if one bumped into a German of a certain age, it was hard not to wonder just what they had been doing a couple of decades before then.

We have just returned from a holiday in Croatia, a country that has seen armed conflict less than two decades ago. Lovely place, but again, you can’t help wondering. That man wandering around the public square in a military uniform, with militia-style flashes? Obviously the local eccentric, and largely ignored by everyone. But did he have a “bad war”? Or a good one?

What I had not appreciated about the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia was how it had splintered almost entirely along religious lines. The Croats are Catholic, very, the Serbs Orthodox. The Muslims were scattered throughout the old Federation, with no particular territory to call their own, save the Albanians in Kosovo..

Many were descended from people who had converted from either of the above religions when the region was ruled by the Ottomans. Certain professions were reserved for Muslims, and it was a way of gaining preferment. When the lid came off, on the death of Tito, no surprise that all sides turned on them as the descendants of apostates who had converted for economic reasons.

No one comes out of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia very well. There were massacres committed by all sides, except the Slovenians, who seem to have exited the former country relatively peaceably. It is fair to say that the Serbians have received the worst press, probably because we fought them, as part of the Nato coalition defending those Muslims of Kosovo.

There was ethnic cleansing carried out by the Croats as well, though. It is disconcerting to come across apartment blocks, even a bridge, named after Franjo Tudman, the former Croat hard man seen by us as one of the bad guys, who but for his death in 1999 would probably have ended up in the Hague along with the rest of them. Tudman still has a following in Croatia, apparently.

It makes me hugely grateful to live in a country that has not seen armed conflict for almost three centuries.