The Naked Truth

In Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” a powerful and stupid Emperor is duped by two weavers, spin doctors* who tell him their yarn is invisible to anyone who is stupid. They spin, weave and fabricate ‘garments’ which the insecure emperor buys, along with their self-spun story. In a grand parade he displays his new outfit before bewildered subjects who, though all thinking the same thing, are too intimidated to say the obvious. Only when a child shouts “But he isn’t wearing any clothes” is the downtrodden crowd galvanised. Its about “Speaking Truth to Power”.

Here are two recent soundbites:

“… taxes, taxes taxes. All the rest is bullshit…”- Rutger Bergman -Feb1 2019

“Every Billionaire is a Policy Failure”- Dan Riffle Jan 23 2019

I hear childlike shouts of truth against a world order which has subjugated us all. 

Dutch economic historian Rutger Bregman’s galvanising shout came at the ongoing World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Riffle’s in his capacity as new policy advisor to US democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez . Both are truths screamed against injustice. Injustice finely dressed in non-existent fabrics by economic and political spin doctors. We have all grown up being told that wealth and wealthy individuals make everyone rich, high taxes will simply drive away our overlords and they’ll take our jobs with them, resources are better managed in private hands than under our collective (i.e. government) control… so low taxes and small government are good for us all and anyone who thinks otherwise is stupid. Full stop. ( For stupid “communist”, rippling with derogatory overtones, is often used.) The neo-liberal juggernaut rumbles on, leaving bewildered humanity and a voiceless environment crushed in its wake. So it goes.

Riffle and Bregman shout “No!”. Riffle speaks out of turn. Received wisdom, especially in USA, tells us (is that US?) to admire billionaires and aspire to become one. Not Riffle. Surely he is right- obscene inequality has to be a policy failure. Obscene inequality like 26 people (in 2017 it was 8) owning as much as the poorest half of humanity. My working definition of policy is “rules groups of people make to govern themselves”, in this case 7 billion of us accept rules that hand half the planet to 26 people. These rules may not have been made democratically, nevertheless we accepted them. They’re our rules. Riffle and Bregman ask why we meekly put the world’s resources in 52 hands through rules that concomitantly make other people so poor they have no choice but to sell their children to escape climate change. The spin doctors weave a story that says low taxes increase everyone’s wealth, naked facts show current policies have decreased the relative wealth of the poorest half of the planet by 11 % in the last year (while the wealth of the billionaires increased by 12 %.). They say we are stupid if we point out the naked truth that this is a failure of global policy. Riffle and Bregman shout “No! The policies are stupid. The low taxation mantra is spin!”

Take 90 seconds to hear Bregman say it like it is at the grand parade in Davos:

Bregman sees the absurdity of 1500 private jets delivering an audience for David Attenborough’s “We’re Destroying Our Planet” speech and the absurdity of the rich promoting their philanthropy but resisting taxation. Secure in there being no answer one billionaire asked where there had ever been economic growth with high taxation. Bregman, an economic historian, answered “USA” and pointed out growth was greater when marginal tax rates were up to 91%. There at the World Emperor’s Forum, Rutger shouted ”Bullshit”, (a technical term which translates as “ your system, your dogma is wearing no truth.”). Naked truth to naked power. Out of turn.

How did we get here anyway? The answer lies in power,- that dark material of human development.  26 men owning as much as half of humanity is a gross coagulation of power. So is a bunch of billionaires (aka policy failures?) flying into Davos to decide how to run the world, how to make the rules and doctor the spin with which to clothe them. They choose if and where they philanthropically spend a little money. But of course elites chose to spend where it specifically does not change the system. They don’t want development that makes a systemic difference, that moves humanity to a different place, different relationships, less coagulated power. Their interest is only to shuffle the deck chairs not change the Titanic’s course nor share her life boats. Our current direction is just fine- for them. (See my critique of Bill and Melinda Gates’ philanthropy here.) They play the world system. They sell spin. They make money. They invite Bono. Taxation would take control out of their hands, enable common people (via governments) to decide where to spend, perhaps on system changing interventions. They don’t like that in Davos.

There is a development truth deeper than Davos or USA here. Its about policy, how groups of people make their rules. Whenever, Davos-like, small groups make the rules, discuss their meaning and weave the truths in which to clothe them we are in trouble. (Try this allegory about that). A private club of super wealthy telling us low taxation is good for us all creates policy failures. So too does an Indian elite calling themselves high caste and telling the rest what they can and cannot do, where they can live, who they can marry because they are low caste. The spin is that God made it this way. (Bregman would say “Bullshit” so do I.).  Similarly white Dutch Christian settlers in South Africa fabricated God’s truth about black, coloured and white people. Apartheid put the country’s resources and power and policies in a very few hands. Dark people worked the mines, white people worked the golf courses. Just as God decreed. When Mandela and others first shouted “No”, the rich world just carried on buying essential minerals. Finally Mandela won. Then (and only then) the rich world applauded, handed out a Nobel… and carried on developing a global economic apartheid which puts resources and power and policy in a very few hands. That’s the global economic apartheid which brings us sweatshops and super yachts. A global economic apartheid that is a policy failure. There are better ways for us to share this planet. It is policy failure when powerful men decree girls’ genitals be mutilated. It is a policy failure when a rich politician who makes the laws appropriates a community’s pond and sells their water back to them (a situation I found in Cambodia last year). It is a policy failure when world consumption of fossil fuels continues to rise and so does the planet’s temperature, global inequality and biodiversity loss. The billionaires discussed that at Davos.

To me development is seeing bad policies, making better ones, creating better human systems. I often use Outcome Mapping, where the aim is to contribute to better systems via the two dimensions we can change- human behaviour and policy. Part of development is to see poor systems, shout obvious truths, unravel spin, speak out of turn. From those seeds policy changes may sprout. Like Mandela, Wilberforce, Pankhurst and others, Bregman’s and Riffle’s seeds might grow into rules that re-shape planetary relationships and resource distribution. If development is “People finding better ways to live” then policy change may be the holy grail of development.


*PS I wrote this, including “speaking truth to power” , “saying what everyone is thinking” and “ spin doctor”, before seeing this Fox News Interview. Watch Bregman call a spin doctor a spin doctor, and be shocked as USAs attack dog of the right starts snarling. Seriously appalling to see Tucker Carlson swearing and snarling at Bregman.