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The ascendancy of lies

May 6, 2021

Do you ever get the feeling that we’re adrift in a lifeboat, whose occupants are starting to devour their weaker brethren, despite having more than enough supplies for a long spell on the water? And that they do so not because it’s necessary, but because they can?

The other day, I got an email from the catering manager at the golf course where I’ve spent thousands of pounds on my favourite form of recreation over the years. It went to all members of the club which it hosts. The club doesn’t own the course, but you would think there was a symbiotic relationship, given that subscriptions form a very handy and stable source of income alongside what they gain from members of the public with no affiliation who simply turn up and pay green fees.

For some years, the company that owns the course has provided a modest discount to club members for food and drink bought from the bar. Now, it seems, we have to pay money up front and order through an app that stores our financial details, in order to get the discount.

I have no fundamental objection to this move. It’s a commercial decision. The owner of the golf centre will have taken quite a hit during lockdown, so you can understand why it would want to boost its cashflow.

But what pisses me off is the way in which this measure is presented as a benefit. Here’s part of the email:

From the 1st of May 2021, we are making a few changes to the way that you order and pay for food and drink. We are introducing the widely successful Levy scheme as an additional member benefit.

Levy is a way in which you will be able to preload your member account with credit, making food and drink purchases even more seamless. Plus you’ll never have to worry about leaving your wallet at home again!

Levy will need to be topped up in advance of any purchases and can be done so via the Golf Centre App, where you can also see your remaining balance.

Beginning 1st May, to continue to benefit from your 10% discount, food and drink must be ordered and paid for using a levy balance which you can manage via the app.

The bold type is mine, and I’ve removed the name of the golf centre to spare them embarrassment.

Now I can see how some member with incipient dementia might forget their wallet, which is about the only obvious “benefit” on offer, except that such a person is the least likely to want to go to the trouble of downloading an app and sharing their credit card details with yet another online vendor whose data security is no more likely to be watertight than any other. As for “seamless purchases”, waving a card over a machine seems pretty seamless to me, after which my card returns to its miniature faraday cage in my wallet.

Anyone with an ounce of perception will recognise an obvious cash grab. So why go to the trouble of describing it as a benefit?

The answer is that everybody else does, or rather nobody has the honesty to admit that they’re raising revenue, be it by stealth taxes, diminished consumer rights, altered terms and conditions or exclusions hiding in the small print of commercial agreements.

Blatant dishonesty that insults the intelligence seems to be the currency of the age. Since politicians like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump came to realise that lying has no consequences, everyone else seems to think that they can do the same and get away with it. Though there’s nothing new about lying, it now seems to have become a commonly accepted ethos. Everyone lies, so why not me?

Within a fractured society in which everybody lies, there’s another dynamic that flourishes: the abandonment of the idea that your interest is my interest.

There have always been unscrupulous politicians, employers and businesses who are out for what they can get. But these days it seems that even apparently reputable organisations believe that it’s OK to shaft people so long as those people don’t realise that they’re being shafted.

The principle of mutual interest is the fundamental lubricant of society. I pay my taxes, you protect me. I buy a new home, you guarantee that it won’t fall down in a couple of years. I work for you, you pay me and make sure that I work in a safe place. I am your customer, it’s in your interest that you deal with me honestly so that I buy from you again.

On the other hand, if I buy Brexit from you and it turns into a disaster, or if I buy an apartment and I’m bankrupted by the cost of removing the cladding, or if I buy a diesel car which was sold to me on the basis of deliberately falsified emission data, how will I trust you again?

The answer is that if I can keep the truth from you, you will happily continue to trust me. Though the benefits of Brexit were always debatable, it was only after the Grenfell fire that the cladding scandal became clear. And maybe those car-makers reckoned that they could get away with falsifying the data.

When we talk about the scale of the disinformation that’s spread though the social media, and the part governments have played in its dissemination, we should remember that Vladimir Putin had nothing to do with Grenfell and diesel emissions, even if he may have pushed us towards Brexit.

It’s also ironic that while mutual interest involves an understanding of what each party wants out of a relationship or a transaction, companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon claim to know in ever more granular detail what “customers” want. Yet large organisations, who presumably use the data provided by the social media, often make catastrophic mistakes of perception.

Take the twelve leading football clubs, for example, whose owners decided to create a European Super League, only to retreat in disarray after mass protests from the fans of those clubs. Under the principle of mutual interest, you would have thought that they would have ensured that they would have taken steps to get the fans on board, or at least to discover what motivates them, before announcing the new league. Were they so remote from their customer base that they thought that they could sell what was effectively a money grab as a benefit to the fans? Or did they consider that the only customers that counted were the TV companies and the merchandisers? What they actually achieved was the perception among those lifelong fans of the football clubs that they, the owners, regarded their clubs as properties, investments, and, more importantly, that they cared little about the culture, traditions and wider welfare of the sport.

The result? A breakdown of trust among those who regarded the owners as custodians rather than the rational but hard-headed businessmen that they are. A failure to understand mutual interest, in other words.

And what of construction giants who stiff their subcontractors with late payment in pursuit of higher short-term profits, and pay their executives eight-figure bonuses? And supermarkets who use their purchasing power to drive down farmers’ margins and make more money through cash management than they make from their customers? Where’s the big picture, the wider benefit to society?

The picture is not universally grim. A pharmaceutical company can still sell its vaccine at cost so that poorer countries can more easily afford its product, in the knowledge that it will be able to make a normal margin from follow-on products. It’s surely in its interest to prevent a global economic meltdown, so that the world will be able to afford its drugs in the longer term.

Wealthy philanthropists – Gates, Buffett et al – can still use their fortunes to fill gaps in healthcare and research that governments ignore or are unable to address.

While jumped-up go-betweens can still make fortunes from PPE because they have a friend in government, there are still volunteers who will risk their own health to staff vaccination centres or deliver free meals to vulnerable people kept at home during lockdown.

And if you’re looking for an example of dedication and commitment in the public sector, you only need to think of the thousands of National Health Service staff who kept us alive during the pandemic. Despite the efforts of politicians to persuade us that we are customers, with the dubious implication that we have the right to become customers of someone else, to these people, who saw so many of their colleagues succumb to COVID, we were always human beings.

All is not lost. Society still trundles on like a bicycle with a wobbly wheel. But if we’re to return to a state where honesty and responsibility are once again standard expectations of our politicians, public servants, businesses and citizens, we need to start voting with our feet. We can still cast out the liars, punish the devious and loudly excoriate those who are beyond our reach. We can walk away from companies whose ethics and objectives we find wanting. We don’t need a cancel culture to name and shame. We can encourage and applaud those who discover the truth and expose the liars. And if we show intelligence when we look at the world, our powers of perception will be less likely to be insulted.

A tall order, you might think, when the temptation is to sit back and passively accept the lies and short-term thinking that seem to be all around us. But as we emerge from our lockdown caves and enthusiastically enter into our new normal, it’s surely not too much to hope that when the euphoria fades, and we look to rebuild what has been broken, we shall start raising our expectations of those who ask us to trust them.

On this election day in the United Kingdom, that’s perhaps too much to ask. But I’d like to think that the reckoning might not be too far away.

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