As usual, Malcolm takes an over-long run-up to the wicket.
When Mr Brunel’s Wonderful Railway first made its way to a small West Country town, something very odd was noticed. Something that King’s Cross and St Pancras could never achieve. The clock on the station and the Town Hall clock down the main street were invariably in perfect agreement.
A wealthy visitor, doubtless possessed of one of M. Breguet‘s marvellous chronometers (or a pale imitation), was forced to remark on the accuracy of the town’s time-keeping. He asked the Station Master how he kept time so precisely. The Station Master could only shrug, and say he adjusted the railway clock each morning to match that shown by the town clock down the street.
So, our wealthy visitor strolled down, and addressed himself to the keeper of the town clock, to ask the same question. Easy, replied our West Country chronomaster: each morning he looked up the street, and adjusted the town clock by that shown on the station.
The wisdom of crowds
The kind of averaging exhibited in that anecdotal West Country town leads on to the curiosity considered a few years ago by James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds.
Surowiecki started his, equally overlong, run-up by citing Sir Francis Galton’s recognition of the phenomenon. In 1906, towards the end of his life, Galton had attended a country fair. One of the side-shows was “guess the dressed weight of the steer”. Going on for a thousand laid a few pence and ventured a guess: the median of those guesses was just one pound away from the actual weight.
The wiki moment
Back in 1995 a cyber-pioneer, Ward Cunningham, launched a new internet tool, the wiki. This was based on the notion that the agglomeration of net-intellect could produce material of worth. By instant cross-referencing, a generality of input and unlimited updating a consensus can evolve on matters factual.
Out of this came wikipedia, without which we are nothing.
For a while there, from the mid-1990s to mid-2008, it looked as though we had achieved the capitalist Nirvana. Everything was on the up. With only the slightest ahem! of disapproval, the consensus was that boom-and-bust were lorst-and-gorn-forever.
The ghost of degraded/misunderstood/never-read Adam Smith controlled the wisdom of the marketplace.
Moreover, the marketplace could embrace all and sundry who could access one of the numerous (and sponsored) web-sites updated minute-by-minute with the latest offer. We, too, could have the wisdom and the manipulation of our own private market at our very keyboard interface.
The complaint of Tories was that the Labour Government was guilty of micro-management. The heavy hand of Whitehall needed to be lifted from the backs of entrepreneurial capitalists. The City knew its business. Profits and dividends rule! et cetera. et cetera.
Then came the abortion: the wheel fell off.
The Tories could not believe their luck.
After a decade in the wilderness they were back in business. And without having to have a single new idea.
Just change the rhetoric. Just edit the wiki.
And so we have the BBC’s Nick Robinson pounding on about whether or not Gordon Brown should “apologise”. Note that he does this on his radio appearances; but not on his web-log. Presumably because one is ephemeral; and the other is almost a record.
Robinson at the White House yesterday was nerve-crawlingly embarrassing. The only explanation must be that he was looking for star-billing at David Cameron press-outings.
So, let Malcolm put the world straight.
We are in this mess because, collectively, we willed it. It is a wiki-disaster. No politician, no regulation could have stood in the way of public demands for loans, for credit, for 125% mortgages. We wrote the script. Whether on not we were induced into this mania, whether we were told we wanted such overkill is a matter of debate. It floated a lot of boats, especially those of smart salesmen, banking executives and advertising agencies.
Those who were caught in the mini-disasters of deregulated pensions, endowment mortgages and other such Thatcherisms might have had an inkling of the consequence.
We probably knew in our inner hearts we were taking, asking, expecting, spending too much. If not, our kids were reminding us that the property boom was pricing them out of the market. But we were too busy counting our paper gains (and Granny’s expected legacy).
Our daily prayer, if we stopped for such a thought, was “Make me good, but not just yet.”