Friday, 3 April 2015

On psychopaths, politicians and doing business

This blog has looked at power and hubris:
> on 'progress':
Futures Forum: On the Transition: "Future Primitive"
> on social engineering:
Futures Forum: Subsidies and social engineering: or why we build roads.
> on engineering:
Futures Forum: The techno-fix ... Can we engineer our way out of environmental catastrophe? Or ... Can we 'design for the real world'?
> on building new headquarters:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: "There is a theory that when big companies splash out on new headquarters or other lavish items, their demise is waiting around the corner."
> on subsidies:
Futures Forum: Crony capitalism and lemon socialism in East Devon........ The costs of "substantial growth and expanding business" 
> on freedom:
Futures Forum: We are all truck-drivers now ... The free movement of goods, increased carbon emissions and the destruction of manufacturing industry 
> on eminent domain:
Futures Forum: "Allowing fracking companies to drill on private land without first requiring a landowner’s permission." or... "Neighborhood Environmentalism: Toward Democratic Energy"
> on perceptions around climate change:
Futures Forum: Climate change: "Conservatives don’t hate climate science. They hate the left’s climate solutions"
> on hubris:
Futures Forum: Of vanity projects and local government
> on democracy and pr:
Futures Forum: Managed democracy: "The deliberate undermining of people's perception of the world, by creating confusion and contradiction ... undermining any opposition to existing power structures ... which leaves us feeling helpless and depressed and to which the only response is: 'Oh dear'."
> on churnalism:
Futures Forum: Happy news coming out of Cranbrook... churnalism and the partnership between developers and politicians...
> on shooting the messenger:
Futures Forum: Bringing official bodies into 'disrepute': the dangers of censoring what politicians don't want to hear in East Devon
> on 'professional tribalism':
Futures Forum: Localism: The uses and abuses of power: "No politician willingly surrenders control downwards."
> on lobbying:
Futures Forum: "What is lobbying?"... "Openness and transparency is vital."
> on the dangers of corruption:
Futures Forum: "Mounting risks for corruption in UK local government"
Futures Forum: "Mounting risks for corruption in UK local government" ...further developments
> on transparency:
Futures Forum: Probity, accountability and transparency

There is a considerable body of work which has considered how far our leaders demonstrate one or more elements of psychopathy:
> in politics:
Q: What's the difference between a politician and a psychopath? A: None - News - The Independent
David Freeman: Are Politicians Psychopaths?
The Startling Accuracy of Referring to Politicians as 'Psychopaths' - James Silver - The Atlantic
> in business:
How common are corporate psychopaths in politics? - On Line Opinion - 17/10/2013
Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work; A Review | KBOO
Is it Good to Be Bad in the Workplace? | World of Psychology

This piece came out a year ago:

Does Our System Select for Incompetent Sociopaths?

What is the shelf life of a system that rewards confidence-gaming sociopaths rather than competence?
Let’s connect the dots of natural selection and the pathology of power.
In his 2012 book The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, author Kevin Dutton described how the attributes of sociopathology are in a sense value-neutral: the sociopathological attributes that characterize a dangerous criminal may also characterize a cool, high-performing neurosurgeon.
As Dutton explains in his essay What Psychopaths Teach Us about How to Succeed(Scientific American):
Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless and focused. Yet, contrary to popular belief, they are not necessarily violent. Far from its being an open-and-shut case–you’re either a psychopath or you’re not–there are, instead, inner and outer zones of the disorder: a bit like the fare zones on a subway map. There is a spectrum of psychopathy along which each of us has our place, with only a small minority of A-listers resident in the “inner city.”
While there is obviously a place for high-functioning sociopaths in professions which reward those characteristics, what about sociopaths who substitute deviousness and deception for competence? For some context, let’s turn to the Pathology Of Power by Norman Cousins, published in 1988.
Cousins was particularly concerned with the National Security State, a.k.a. the military-industrial complex, which at that point in U.S. history was engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Empire. Cousins described the pathology of power thusly:
“Connected to the tendency of power to corrupt are yet other tendencies that emerge from the pages of the historians:1. The tendency of power to drive intelligence underground;
2. The tendency of power to become a theology, admitting no other gods before it;
3. The tendency of power to distort and damage the traditions and institutions it was designed to protect;
4. The tendency of power to create a language of its own, making other forms of communication incoherent and irrelevant;
5. The tendency of power to set the stage for its own use.
In broader terms, we might add: the tendency of power to manifest hubris, arrogance, bullying, deception and the substitution of rule by Elites for rule of law.
Natural selection isn’t only operative in Nature; it is equally operative in human organizations, economies and societies. People respond to whatever set of incentives and disincentives are present. If deceiving and conning others is heavily incentivized, while integrity and honesty are punished, people will gravitate to running cons and embezzlement schemes.
What behaviors does our Status Quo reward? Misrepresentation, obfuscation, legalized looting, embezzlement, fraud, a variety of cons, gaming the system, deviousness, lying and cleverly designed deceptions.
Let’s connect the pathology of power and the behaviors selected by our Status Quo.What we end up with is a system that selects for a specific category of sociopaths: those whose only competence is in running cons.
No wonder we have a leadership that is selected not for competence but for deviousness. What’s incentivized in our system is spinning half-truths and propaganda with a straight face and running cons that entrench the pathology of power.
What is the shelf life of a system that rewards confidence-gaming sociopaths rather than competence? Unless we change the incentives and disincentives, the system is doomed.
Of related interest:

Does Our System Select for Incompetent Sociopaths? | InvestmentWatch

There is also the question of whether organisations can be said to have human-like personality issues:
The Corporation - YouTube
Do multinationals have personalities? | Arwa Mahdawi | Comment is free | The Guardian
Book Review: 'The Utopia of Rules' By David Graeber : NPR

And the question posed this week has been whether the oil giant Shell can be considered to be suffering from psychopathic tendencies:
Former UK Diplomat Calls Shell’s Climate Stance ‘Paranoiac and Psychopathic’ : Greentech Media
Shell is 'Psychopathic,' Says Former UK Climate Change Envoy | News | teleSUR

As pointed out by today's 'energy roundup' from the nef blog:

To achieve the 2°C goal, not only do renewables need to grow, as they are doing, but the fossil fuel industry must also shrink. Former UK climate change diplomat John Ashton forcefully made this point in an open letter to Shell CEO Ben van Beurden:
"You speak, as it were, peering down, with authority and detachment, at a world that should self-evidently look the same to others as it does to you. And from that height, you seem to want us to believe that the issue is not how to deal with climate change but how to do so without touching your business model."
Energy round-up: changing the business model | New Economics Foundation
The NEF blog: posts by Energy & Climate Change | New Economics Foundation

Shell cynically blocking action on climate change, says ex-diplomat

John Ashton accuses oil company and others of being ‘narcissistic, paranoid and psychopathic’ and being unable to contemplate low-carbon future

 A Shell floating drill rig in the Arctic ocean. The company is accused of ‘fearing a non-existent conspiracy to bring about its own sudden death’. Photograph: Gary Braasch/Gary Braasch/Corbis

Shell and its oil and gas peers are narcissistic, paranoid and psychopathic, and engaged in a cynical attempt to block action on global warming, according to the UK’s former climate change envoy.
In an open letter to Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden, John Ashton said the company’s promised transformation in response to climate change is in reality “a manifesto for the oil and gas status quo”. The companies justified their strategy, he said, with the unsupported claim that the economic and moral benefits of providing cheap energy to the world’s poor exceeds the risks to the same people from climate change.
Ashton, an independent commentator and until 2012 the UK’s top climate diplomat, wrote the letter, published in the Guardian, in response to a speech by van Beurden in February. The Shell CEO said those calling for “fossil fuels out, renewables in” were naive and said provoking a sudden death of fossil fuels was not a plausible plan to tackle global warming.
Ashton said van Beurden’s speech “was a classic of obfuscation and dissimulation.”
Ashton said: “It is their right to say whatever they want, but it is essential that this prospectus be challenged. Underpinning [the oil and gas industry’s response to climate change] is a cynical calculation that it will be politically impossible to mobilise a truly transformational response, together with an equally cynical attempt to make this self-fulfilling.” Shell declined to comment.
In the letter, Ashton wrote: “You and your peers cannot complain if society increasingly comes to see in your behaviour the characteristic marks of the professional narcissist, paranoiac, and psychopath.”
He said Shell was narcissistic because it was so intoxicated by the current energy system it had helped to build that it could not contemplate the need to build a new one: “You could accept squarely that the days of yesterday’s business model are numbered, that the challenge now is to manage its decline and build alongside it a new business fit for today.”
“The paranoiac fears conspiracies that do not exist,” Ashton wrote. “You fear a non-existent conspiracy to bring about your sudden death.” While current fossil fuel reserves are several times greater than can be burned while avoiding catastrophic climate change, all experts acknowledge that coal, oil and gas will need to be phased out over the next few decades.
“The psychopath displays inflated self-appraisal, lack of empathy, and a tendency to squash those who block the way,” Ashton told van Beurden. “All these traits can be found in your [speech].”
Ashton cites the fast-growing and UN-backed divestment campaign, which has persuaded over 180 organisations to sell off their investments in fossil fuel companies, as a threat to Shell. “The divestment movement may still be small but it is rallying young people, has moral authority, and can now make a prudential case as well as an environmental one,” he writes.
Divestment campaigners argue that the business models of fossil fuel companies, which continue to spend billions on searching for new reserves, are endangering the climate. They also argue those reserves would become worthless if the world’s governments keep their word to cut emissions and limit climate change to 2C.
The Guardian’s Keep it in the Ground campaign is asking the world’s two biggest health charities – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust - to divest.
In the final section of the letter, Ashton issues a challenge to van Beurden and Shell: “Stop frustrating ambition. Talk to us about how you will play your part in a [clean energy] transition. Tell us the inspirational story of that transition, backed by your knowledge and experience … And don’t tell us through crocodile tears that this will all take a long time. Tell us what you will do to hasten it.”
Ashton adds: “Stop pretending that gas is part of the answer to climate change, rather than a necessary stage in a transition to be kept as short as possible. Urge your peers to turn their backs on new fracking around the world, as you wisely have in the UK.
“It’s a high-carbon sugar rush and a recipe for political grief. Stop grumbling about renewables and unlock the opportunities they offer. Manage a retreat from the carbon frontiers, especially the Arctic [and] press the accelerator on carbon capture and storage.”

Shell cynically blocking action on climate change, says ex-diplomat | Environment | The Guardian

Here is the complete piece:
Open letter to Shell's Ben van Beurden from John Ashton | Environment | The Guardian

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