69. Ebbing Friendships

I am most perturbed by seeing what is happening to friendship all around me.

Not only is the meaning of friendship being lost, but hardly anyone seems to be seeking what friendship really is or what it can be. My ‘best friend’ and I enjoy walks and talks and simply being in each other’s company. We respect and appreciate our lapses into silence. We also appreciate each other’s talents and eccentricities. However, we both recognize that our kind of friendship is becoming an ever rarer experience.

How many genuinely close friends (in whom we can confide) do we have these days! According to recent American polls, two is the average number of such friends in whom people trust, down from 4 only two decades ago! Studies show that a quarter of Americans admit to having no close confidants at all. The falling numbers are not that different in the UK. It was not always thus in the days before television and the internet. The current ebb in friendship in the ‘western world’ has been accelerated by the triumph of individualism and competition in a speed-driven market economy: “Me First” has never been regarded as a boost for friendship.

Closeness in past eras was dependent on the availability of free time and the immediacy of contacts. The great economist, Adam Smith, recognized in the 18th century that the new urban conditions of the growing commercial society could have a negative impact on both the individual and friendships. “As soon as a man comes to a great city, he is sunk in obscurity and darkness. His conduct is observed and attended to by nobody, and he is therefore likely to neglect it himself.”1 Smith advocated that dislocated workers join associations and church groups for the openings to friendship these might provide.

Today’s adults can find it difficult to maintain meaningful friendships in factories, offices, or other workplaces. The emphasis on competition and efficiency crackles everywhere and even contacts can pose a transactional feel. It is hard these days to establish where networking ends and genuine friendship begins… with the clock ticking, the mobile buzzing and the computer flashing. Both jobs and financial security tend to be valued above friendship.

In a culture dominated by consumption, speed and utilitarianism, it is difficult to consider friendship in terms of moral commitment. Capitalism and the internet have both been drivers in the changing meanings of friendship. Our notion of what it means to be a good friend, a close friend, an intimate friend or a “best friend” is rapidly evolving. As Henry David Thoreau wrote nearly two centuries ago: “The language of friendship is not words but meanings.”

Online users of Facebook and Twitter can display hundreds of “friends,” but seeing the multiplicity of faces on these sites does not reveal their significance. Such social exhibitionism may mask deep loneliness. Internet acquaintances and real friendships are likely to be miles apart. As Aristotle, who spent years considering the nature of friendship wrote: “A friend to all is a friend to none.” Facebook Beware! Friendship has traditionally been based on close (geographic) contacts. There is precious little opportunity for this on the new popular sites. We are experiencing a steady decrease in the time devoted to personal communication in everyday life and this makes genuine emotional attachment more difficult to find or to maintain.

The new world we are entering is a domain which is not basically supportive of friendship. Studies have shown that many Americans, in part because of their mobility, eventually lose touch with their early friends. Although there is a global recognition that human beings have benefited enormously from friendship in past times, no effort is being made by nation states to encourage, much less to actively support, such much needed relationships. The way public services such as libraries and the mail are fast disappearing is a significant indication of where we are headed.

A true friend acknowledges the value of friendship and treasures it, but maintaining it in today’s digital world can be difficult: one’s privacy is so easily violated. As Jon Ronson, a Welsh journalist, filmmaker, radio presenter and nonfiction author found out to his surprise, his identity was recently stolen by some academic “friends” who swooped uninvited into his online existence. Their “spokesmorph,” replying to Ronson’s protest to this act wrote: “The infomorph isn’t taking your identity, it is re-purposing social media data into an infomorphic aesthetic.” There would appear to be little room for friendship in such newly morphed relationships!2

“Friendship is undoubtedly central to our lives, in part because our friends can help shape whom we are as persons.” The ancients spent much more time in philosophical reflection on this topic.3 Aristotle, in particular, regarded the way friends identified with each other as an exhibition of a “singleness of mind.” An openness in friendship was an enlargement of the self. He wrote with profound insight that “the virtuous person is related to his friend in the same way that he is related to himself — for a friend is another self. “Friends share a conception of values not only because there is an important overlap between their perspectives but also because of the impact that friends exert on each other. The values they share are jointly formed by mutual deliberation. This has wider implications for society because extending each other’s moral experience also affects those around them.”4

Our first friendships develop in stages and are driven by feelings and grounded in pleasure. My earliest childhood friendships, it seems in retrospect, were based on playing with their toys as well as mine. These relationships were maintained through increasing familiarity and playtime sharing. Only slowly did I become aware of the reactions of my playmates and was often troubled by the behavior of others who were aggressive or tried to dominate. I was also embarrassed by adults asking who was “my best friend?” I didn’t have any. Today some child experts see this term as risky because it can disturb the young and can arouse feelings of unsuitability and exclusion.

In psychological studies, three stages in the development of friendship are now accepted: Sharing fun and openness are highlighted at first, then loyalty and commitment are observed in the second stage, and ultimately children increasingly seek similar values, interests and attitudes. As teenagers we become aware that friendship directly contributes to our self-confidence, self-esteem, and social satisfaction. Contemporary books and films tend to highlight the heart-warming commitment and delight of young teenage girls immersed in friendship. However, little attention is paid to what happens to friendship upon graduation from school or university.***

In our times, mutual self-disclosure is often a basic element in creating a “bond of trust” in friendships. Exchanging intimate details of our lives can help us to deal with our problems and, when it exposes our vulnerabilities and secrets, can serve to bring us closer. Trust is essential in friendship because it reinforces the reliability of a relationship which depends on mutually shared interests, passions, views and enthusiasms which all strengthen the sense of the bond which is so basic to friendship. The sharp decline of trust at every level of society has made bonding increasingly problematic in recent years.

However one looks at it, friendship throughout the ages has been an enormous support to us as human beings. Sociologists maintain that friendship makes us “feel more alive” and is “life enhancing.” I believe its virtues are a key to living a more fulfilled life. It is up to all of us in a time when friendships are statistically on the wane to counter this trend by singing its wondrous song. As the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

1Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, (1776)

2Jon Ronson, The Guardian Weekend, February 21, 2015, p.18

3Bennett Helm, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, (2013)

4J. Annas, “Plato and Aristotle on Friendship and Altruism,” Mind, 86:532 (1977)

***I have always been intrigued by how psychologists and philosophers deal with the complex nature of intimacy in friendships. The suggestion that friendship always entertains an element of erotic desire goes back to Plato. Ever since Freud our relationships, however little expressed they may be, are affected by our sexuality. The Austrian philosopher, Otto Weininger claimed there could be no friendship between men unless there was some attraction to draw them together. Much of the affinity and affection between them consequently can be attributed to the element of unsuspected subconscious sexual attraction. This can produce levels of anxiety in developing intimacy between male friends as well as between female. The Danish sociologist Henning Bech wrote that the more men had to assure themselves that their relationship with another man was not homosexual, the more concerned they could become that it might be. The negative impact on such friendship in homophobic societies has been considerable.


68. Whither the “intellectual elite?”

What’s become of the intellectual elite? Have they gone the way of stenographers, elevator operators and social secretaries? I look back longingly (or is it just nostalgically?) to the 1960’s when intellectuals were concerned with the Civil Rights movement, the nuclear showdown with Russia (climaxing with the Cuban missile crisis), the horrors of the war in Vietnam and the student revolution of 1968. In my bookcases I still keep copies of the Encounter magazines of that era: There were marvelous letters of Evelyn Waugh, quality essays by Henry Miller, Jorge Luis Borges and George Steiner (who wrote so brilliantly about language). I also have copies of Partisan Review whose editor, Irving Howe, for years was one of America’s most respected dissidents. Under duress, Howe’s commitment to socialism demanded what he admitted was “a capacity of living with doubt, revaluation and crisis.” Those were the days!

The post WWII intellectuals seemed to exude non-conformism, a devotion to a kind of Thomas Paine idealism, and they were possessed by a streak of rebellious embattlement against the conventional politics of their time. Raymond Aaron one of France’s more right wing intellectuals of that era, wrote that the theme of material prosperity “fails to give ‘meaning to life’ and some price has to be paid for it. The individual has the feeling (and it can actually agonize) that in becoming master and owner of nature, man has enslaved himself to an inhuman scheme of things.” Aaron recognized that the left did not ignore “the inhumanity of personal relations, the desiccating effect of specialization in the field of work, the alienation of the producer in and by the things that he produces.”1

Today’s intellectuals have not been able to give up sniffing capitalist cocaine. Indeed, what attracts intellectuals in search of a faith? Science? Certainly not a whiff of radical utopianism. In the United States the anti-intellectual triumphs of order and conformism are evidenced by the decline of argument (marked by the taboo of argument at dinner tables), and the popular mass disdain of intellectual analyses. “Revolutionists” or intellectuals who aspire to a purer or better world have almost disappeared. There are narrow experts who are concerned about the growing economic and social inequalities, the environmental threats, the lack of charismatic leadership, as well as such specific global challenges as the Ukraine and ISIS. This reflects the enormous increase in the specialization of function in all fields.

Specialization has narrowed the vision of most scientists, doctors, economists, teachers, researchers and administrators. This has also affected the possibility of existence for the free-lance writer or journalist and that of the non-academic philosopher, sociologist or historian. I write this even though there now are some 230 million blogs available on the internet. Many of these, like Amor Mundi of the Hannah Arendt group at Bard College, could easily be included in the category of any “intellectual elite.” The Dish>/em>, a highly professional blog, lists some 230 other blogs which could join most intellectual sets. All of these have their own supporters and enthusiasts but these have yet to be linked under a more comprehensive intellectual umbrella on the internet.

The lack of socially committed intellectual elites is accompanied with a distrust of intellectuals by the masses. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the abuse of the socialist ideals by the Bolsheviks and the Russian “communist” dictatorship. The failure of contemporary intellectuals to concern themselves with interpreting society’s conflicted heritage or instructing the youth in history’s mistakes, or in defining the legitimacy and responsibilities of authority, also should be held to account. The very idea of tradition, which still held sway in the sixties, is rapidly diminishing — weakening the forces which formerly held society together. Meanwhile, the gap between the ideals of democracy and the reality of the ever increasing power of capitalism continues to grow.

The global expansion of different forms of communication also opens more questions about our roles in society. The challenge of “who is an artist today?” also affects intellectuals. The popular response has become: Anybody. Who can be a writer? On the internet: Anyone. The internet is now the keeper of memory and many of the abilities which used to be held by the human brain. The historical community of any period or era was defined by the communication of its intellectuals. Now the question arises whether in forthcoming generations this intellectual community will become obsolescent. As it is, the younger generation is no longer used to asking questions: If they want to find out something they will go to Google or Wikipedia. No reason to respect an elder with a good memory — never mind an outstanding one. The solitude and isolation of the rare, spontaneously individual intellectual in a world of conformist philistines has become ever more evident.

From the social perspective, government by an intellectual elite has not developed since the time of the ancient Greeks. No civilization has been able to produce a Platonic Republic. In his Republic Plato warned that “the ills of the human race will never end until those who are sincerely and truly lovers of wisdom come into political power.” For the Greek intellectuals, however, social status was the prerequisite of true knowledge and goodness. Almost all their philosophers, such as the Pythagoreans and members of the Academy, came from the aristocracy. The Greek populace, however, treated their philosophical elites with a blend of indifference and humor. Aristotle advised that the philosophic elite, rather than seeking power, should restrict themselves to become advisors to the rulers.2

I have always admired the emergence from the Middle Ages of the intellectual elite which flourished in the Renaissance. These were writers, philosophers and artists who were not of one voice but who believed in intellect and education rather than birth or station. Most were distrustful of unproven concepts and despised the prevailing society of corrupt priesthoods, warring aristocrats, rich merchants and an ignorant peasantry. They admired quality in the arts and aspired to it.

While this intellectual elite did much to alter the old order, its leading figures disdained the new world where those with wealth were replacing the aristocrats as arbiters of the social order. Thomas Jefferson, himself an elitist, believed that government should be run by a trained elite and that young men who possessed exceptional talent should be selected from the poor as well as the rich and should receive the highest levels of education to enable them to serve in responsible positions. “Instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger than benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interest of society… (is) essential to a well-ordered republic.”3 This elite should be chosen to run the government, but in no case was confidence be placed to the extent of giving them unlimited power. This was to be a government of the people and not an aristocracy of talented and capable experts. “Our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which our confidence in man may go… but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

Jefferson believed that no one was to be trusted with the powers of government independently of oversight by the people, who were his only hope for good government. However, he recognized that there were many functions for which the people, were not competent. That is why they had to choose representatives to whom they could delegate those responsibilities. To this day there is a sense that the will of the people restrains government by intellectual elites who may disregard that will.

It is feared that, driven by the advances in science in the modern world, elite bureaucracies might tend to underestimate the weaknesses of human character. “The Best and the Brightest” were the intellectual elite of the sixties that gave Americans the Vietnam War and much of the current Welfare System. Although the leaders of this elite were confident of their own abilities, many Americans grew distrustful of their lack of common sense (or character) in controlling national policies. The foreign correspondent, David Halberstam, characterized the White House intellectuals as arrogantly insisting on “brilliant policies that defied common sense” in Vietnam.4 I believe that American anti-intellectualism was based not on the fear of intelligence but the fear of narrow “brain trusts” exercising undue powers.

The student uprisings of 1968 had the effect of splitting intellectuals into various groups. The “author intellectuals” made a choice to withdraw from exerting direct influence on governance and withdrew into their specialized environments. Specialized intellectuals from the academic, scientific and economic domains started to directly collaborate with those in political power. Harvard’s Henry Kissinger and Richard Pipes were to be at the forefront of those helping to guide policies from the inside rather than being academic intellectuals attacking government from the outside.

Notwithstanding Jefferson’s efforts, all organized societies are and have been ruled by an elite. A mixture of political, economic and military elites manage our contemporary nations and each of these has its own intellectual experts. The outstanding contemporary theorists on elitism, agree that the intellectuals working within the state do play influential and highly esteemed roles. Robert Michels (1876-1936) posited that all organizations were elitist because they were run by a few individuals. The bureaucratic structure of the modern state demanded a need for leaders with specific psychological attributes as well as specialized staffs. G. William Domhoff in his book, Who Rules America? maintains that an elite class, not an intellectual one, which owns and manages large income-producing properties, such as corporations and banks, dominates the American power structure politically and economically.

While the intellectual elite is both essential and an adornment for a civilized state, any intellectual elite ruling on its own is not held to be desirable. Brilliant academics lacking people skills most often are inept at such forms of social organization as running the military or the government. Writers of exceptional conceptual capacity may not have any skills in economics or personnel management. As advisors, those with great intellectual capacity are most beneficial. Totalitarian governments, like that of Russia or China, that had first hoped to build a new society by purging all its intellectual free-thinking elite, laid the foundation for their own self-destruction.

Intellectuals of the past few centuries have been the ideologists of movements ranging from Marxism to market capitalism. We can only hope that the future stance of the intellectual elite will be of a more civil nature. Moderation has never been one of the manifestations of the intellectual elite.5 Ideological expression (as dubious as that often may be) also can have fruitful consequences. The creative force of such intellectuals as authors, teachers, comedians, journalists and even bloggers in influencing social change can be surprising.

Will the major vocation of the intellectual elite of tomorrow still be in the expression and pursuit of the ideal? Will they be able to form any kind of consensus, for example, in denouncing the swiftly rising inequalities in society? Will we observe any renewal of “amenities” or “the public interest?” Could there be an effective intellectual opposition to the political extremism of groups like the “Tea Party?” Focus may rapidly shift to the internet with enormous effects on its expressive social practices. Forms of consensus of the past century may disappear with globalized digitalization.

I see hope in new intellectual figures like Pankaj Mishra, for example, coming from other backgrounds (in his case, the Indian sub-continent) who scan the state of the world and bring together endless connections in a manner which arouses a greater comprehension of the global state of affairs for the reader without necessarily coming to any resolution or solution of the problems being considered. But more must be done to strengthen the intellectual elite as opposed to the economic elite. Civil society institutes, The McArthur Fellowships, TED, The New Yorker, The Ford Foundation, The New York Review of Books, The Hannah Arendt Center, The Atlantic, n + 1, and Harper’s are just a random sampling of the groups and magazines furthering public intellectuals in an era when the media are obsessed with personalities and entertainment. Of course, academia at colleges and universities all over the world must be at the forefront of the changes which will affect tomorrow’s intellectual elite: Perhaps by 2030 there may even be an elite of “Republican Intellectuals.” Don’t hold your breath!


1Raymond Aaron, “The exaltation of Folly and Reason,” Encounter, August 1969, p. 60.

2Frank L. Vatai, Intellectuals in Politics in the Greek World, (1984).

3Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, (1821).

4David Halberstam, The Brightest and the Best, (1972).

5Peter Vireck, Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals, (1963).

67. Short term v. long term perspectives

The economists of this world like to divide perspectives into macro and micro; the short term and the long term. John Maynard Keynes, among the greatest of his profession, said “In the long run we are all dead,” so what is important is the short term. Inevitably, if we cannot cope with the present there is little point in focusing on either the short or long terms. Much of what is happening in the world right now may be unsatisfactory, but projections about tomorrow are truly frightening.

The most disturbing statistic coming out of the World Economic Forum in Davos this January was that 45% of jobs in the United States will be taken over by automation over the next two decades.* How is the society going to tackle this daunting “long term” challenge? By comparison, dealing with the growth of an aging population, air and water pollution and global fish stock depletion seemed slightly less threatening. But to their credit, for the first time at Davos, economists openly discussed ways in which capitalism might be saved from itself.

Looking at where we may be headed is influenced in many ways — not only by our location on this planet but by our education, employment, cultural background, social outlook (now much affected for the younger generations by the internet) and expectations. The Chinese, for example, have a different perspective on what needs to be done for the long term well-being of their nation. Their commitment to the long term was already there a couple of millennia ago when they built the Great Wall and continues to the present day. No nation has ever introduced a long term social project on the scale of China’s Birth Control restrictions in which couples were limited to having only one child. Reasonably fearful of their ever larger population, the Communist leadership never even considered the consequential imbalance of the sexes as most couples felt having a son was more important than raising a daughter.

Today this Chinese orientation towards the long term is evidenced by the development of numerous mega-projects ranging from the high-speed rail system (of which 10,000 miles have already been completed ) at a cost of $300 billion, to the South to North Water Diversion Project under construction which will cost $80 billion. I admire the incredible scale of the Chinese commitment to the long term, but recognize that in Europe or the United States such giant projects would create powerful political opposition. Very few of the projects will yield immediate returns, but China’s authoritarian rulers can set aside any social, economic and environmental critiques or any open discussion of the possible consequences.

When one considers the extraordinary long-term mega infrastructure projects of the Chinese in Africa and Latin America (like the $50 billion canal across Nicaragua to compete with the Panama Canal) one must also wish that our politicians, overwhelmed as they are by the pressure of news headlines, could hold visions which extended beyond the next election. Alas, most leaders seem at the mercy of the economic forces of capitalism. None of the incredible advances of the technological revolution (many of which were initially sponsored by the government) are now planned by the state or in any way controlled. This has created short term uncertainty which in turn undercuts social and economic stability. A prime example of this was the inability of the governments to control the banks early on in the 21st century to ensure that the extraordinary short term profits they realized did not endanger the very basis of the entire financial system.

A prime component of leadership is long term perspective. A leader must know or have a vision of where he/she and their organization are headed — not just in the next quarter, but over the next decade or more. A number of American Presidents in the 20th century had long range visions, starting with Teddy Roosevelt who moved to protect the environment and battled against corporate irresponsibility; Woodrow Wilson who worked hard on the creation of the League of Nations; FDR who pushed for Social Security legislation and banking reform, and LBJ who supported Civil Rights legislation. In England too, Clement Atlee instituted the National Health Service and many other long term social reforms following WWII.

Working against those with long term visions have been the overwhelming forces of corporations. With their focus on profits and competition, they are principally concerned with this year’s earnings and their expectations over the next two to five years. Short-termism is also a dominant theme in the financial world where the corporate results of every three months have become part of “quarterly capitalism.” Most corporate executives, although fully aware of the wisdom of long-term planning in areas like the environment, do little to encourage it. They misconceive that tackling environmental change will be bad for business.1

The long term process of giving power to an overpaid corporate and financial elite has resulted in inequalities which no one is clear on how to correct. Economic inequality is like a slow-growing cancer which one may not notice in the early stages but when there is metastasis, demands radical treatment. That is what we shall shortly be facing in both the UK and the US. However the inordinate power that economic inequality gives to the few, like the two Koch brothers in the US who will be spending close to a billion dollars on helping their approved candidates in the 2016 elections, effectively blocks even modest changes or reforms in taxation. Indeed the rich have shown their capacity to protect their ever larger holdings over the past 30 years. Somewhat rhetorically, President Obama in his State of the Union address asked how much longer the American people would “accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?”

The rich also have been effective in steadily emasculating the power of the trade unions and this very weakness has become an increasingly important factor in the rising global inequality.2 The unions are no longer able to give their members a voice or the power to collectively bargain for higher wage levels. As a result, wage growth is manifestly falling behind the ever higher automation-pushed global levels of productivity.

Politicians have permitted “the market” and technology to go unobstructed on the assumption that they are economically and ethically beyond the need for any public or state control. This has led to the indiscriminate, careless and even corrupt sale of many of the public assets such as the rail and postal services in the UK. The Conservatives in power in Britain appear to have no problems letting the Chinese take leading stakes in the generation of nuclear power stations. The long term consequences of such moves appear to be side-stepped, but perhaps the thinking is that if anything goes wrong in such nuclear facilities then the blame can be outsourced!

For the great majority in the US and the UK, the scope of their prospects seems to be contracting. In the sixties Americans were coaxed into believing that rising living
standards would lead to more choice, more leisure and less hard work. Instead, the corporate culture has resulted in a charged competitive environment with longer working hours.3 Similarly, great hopes were held that technology would bring liberation. Instead, Americans are spending increasingly more time on the internet and its social networks and are becoming enslaved to its demands. Thirty years ago no one predicted such results, Even now we do not know how these technological advances, so readily incorporated into young minds, are affecting the new generation.

A long term perspective can empower politicians, corporations, organizations and individuals which can enable them to affect the future. Some of the earlier writers about our future prospects had varied ideas about the general assumptions we could make.4 Wendell Bell in the Foundations of Future Studies (1997) focused on three general concepts broadly accepted by futurists: First, the future is not predetermined. This suggests that more than one future is possible, which is at the basis of the theory of alternative futures. Some of those futures will be better or worse than others, so we have the opportunity to choose. Second, while the future cannot be known, it is possible to make educated guesses with reasonable accuracy about what would be best and worst. Third, we can exercise strategic planning. This is where we design a vision of a future outcome we might want in ten or more years. The important thing is to have a destination towards which we can move, that is, a long term perspective.

A variety of planners and groups are currently proposing a number of ways to balance short term policies with plausible long range measures which would reduce the chances of boom and bust episodes. The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations is a group which focuses on the increasing short-termism of modern politics and our collective inability to break the gridlock which undermines attempts to address the biggest challenges that will shape our future. Pascal Lamy, then the Director-General of the World Trade Organization presented a report, “Now for the Long Term” (2013) which listed five shaping factors that make positive change so difficult:

  1. Institutions: Too many are struggling to adapt to today’s hyper-connected world.
  2. Time: Short-termism directs political and business cycles.
  3. Political Engagement and Public Trust: Politics has not adapted to new methods.
  4. Growing Complexity: Problems can escalate far more rapidly than they can be resolved.
  5. Cultural Biases: Globalization can amplify cultural differences and exclude key voices.

One voice in the Commission, Camilla Toulmin, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, was particularly interested in understanding why people are reluctant to consider the “long term” and in identifying ways to reward those who do. She pointed out that the banking sector remained highly skeptical of the long term efficacy of carbon cutting policies, which unfortunately translates into an aversion to change for the common good. Another, critic, Professor Paul Elkins expressed his view that the current state of politics made it extremely difficult to promote the well-being of future generations. All the large developed economies are using short term policies to help generate growth

Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish economist and futurologist, has launched the “Post-2015 Consensus” in which experts are drawing up a list of objectives for humanity on how to best spend the $2.5 trillion in international development assistance which is to be distributed between now and 2030.5 Bjorn’s group contends that providing free condoms and other contraceptive devices to all who want them would give a return of $120 for every dollar spent. Halting sub-Saharan tax evasion, which currently costs 20 African governments about 10% of their gross domestic product a year would bring in close to $50 for every dollar given in assistance.

Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, who have given billions to cut down malaria and infant mortality rates, have carefully been following many long term challenges. In their annual letter they predicted that “The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history.” It is hard not to celebrate long term predictions of this nature!

This September the nations of the world will discuss the adoption of a new set of long term goals which will replace the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will aim to end extreme poverty by 2030 as well as a range of other problems such as climate change, pollution and access to justice. The question then arises as to what really works with such a large set of long term goals? There are currently some 169 SDGs targeted on their list and such over-ambition needs serious trimming if planning for the long term is ever to be effective. Priorities also need to be applied if one searches beyond the sustainable to the achievable.


1Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, (2004) p.93

2Seumas Milne, The Davos oligarchs are right to fear the world they’ve made,” The Guardian, January 22, 2015.

3Larry Elliott, “Short-termism rife as world longs for real solution,” The Guardian, October 21, 2013.

4Bertrand de Jouvenel, The Art of Conjecture, (1967); Robert Jungk and Norbert Mullert, Future Workshops: How to Create Desirable Futures (1987).

5“The economics of optimism,” The Economist, January 24, 2015, p.67

*The technology revolution is creating phenomenal changes in employment. The Gary Steel Works in Indiana, the largest such mill in the USA, employed 30,000 workers at its postwar peak in which it produced 6 million tons of steel. Today it can produce more than 7 million tons a year with only 5,000 workers!