After a five-month hard slog putting together the Social Market Foundation's gambling report, it's time to unplug for a couple of weeks. Coverage of the report can be found in the Financial Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Mail.
I was interested to see that much of this coverage (no doubt because of the SMF's press release) and the subsequent controversy focused on what I had imagined would be a rather benign proposal for a 'soft cap' affordability check on spending. There are certainly, in my view, more radical recommendations in the report. So I was amused – and a little disappointed – to see that the reaction from some quarters to this rather benign proposal was a rolling-out of the usual rusty old argument about liberty and the nanny state.
It is amusing because it is entirely predictable. I even made reference to it in the introduction of the report, knowing that it would at some point head my way, when I described "the unnecessary and entirely artificial crusade by those who lay claim to gambling as a libertarian cause of economic agency against the spectre of a nanny state." I had hoped that the usual quarters who are critical of reform might have come up with something a little more creative in their rebuttal of my report. Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed. One industry lobbyist even got in touch with me to complain, "I don't want the state overseeing what I drink, what I eat, how much I spend on clothes and holidays."
I suppose that one should try and remain patient and sympathetic, in that most of the corporate PR guys who use labels like 'nanny state' as a cloak to wrap around their commercial activity do so with little understanding of the philosophical and political significance of the language they use. To these guys, such labels are like white bread: easy to package, cut up and consume. They sprinkle on a few quotes from Hayek or Friedman and they think that they're good to go. They probably have no idea that there is an established philosophical and political context to their words. They probably don't appreciate how complex and contested the labels are – or how complex and contested they were even in Chicago back in the 1940s. I guess that it's not their fault. These guys are built to defend profit, not read books. I just wish that they were a little more careful in the language they use. Anyone who has met me, and who has socialised with me, will know that I'm about as far from the cardboard cutout caricature of a nanny statist as you're going to meet. I just refuse to accept that complex questions can be reduced to a sort of sixth-form debating society level of discourse.
Another interesting thing that has come out of the past three days is this: those industry lobbyists who today are accusing me of being a nanny statist were the same ones who for two years insisted to me that the focus of my thinking had to be on affordability, not stake limits. I have lost count of how many conversations I have had about the need for affordability checks and the need to standardise these checks across all operators. I took all those conversations in good faith, and made sure that the various sensibilities were reflected in my report. Needless to say, I have now taken note that multi-operator affordability checks are actually not what the industry wants, even when packaged with the careful caveats of net deposits and soft caps, and that what I was told was needed over the past two years is now different from what is needed today. So where does that leave us? If the concept of affordability is dismissed as too interventionist and 'arbitrary', then we are left with only one alternative: fixed limits to stakes. I shall be making this clear in any conversations that I have going forward.
The coverage of the 'soft cap' proposal slightly overshadowed what is, in my opinion, the biggest issue going forward: that of offshoring and tax avoidance. There seems to be something of a culture of omertà around this issue, and I've experienced quite a lot of pressure over the past 12 months to not talk about it. Tom Witherow at the Mail is to be congratulated for having had the bravery and the foresight to understand the importance of this issue and to write about it.
I predict that the offshore tax question is going to grow in importance over the course of the next three years. This should be expected in a current political climate in which the established direction of travel is now firmly pointed towards fiscal frameworks like the Digital Services Tax in the UK and the GAFA tax in France, and where protectionist actions like President Trump's new executive orders against Tik Tok overlap with concerns over online harms, data harvesting, 'surveillance capitalism' and the so-called 'Balkanisation of the internet'. Remote gambling operators might like to imagine that they are not connected to these questions, but the fact is this: in many ways, the online gambling industry is the apotheosis of Big Tech, in terms of its algorithms, its flow of capital, its rootlessness, its addictiveness, its marketing techniques, its ability to permeate into the essential elements of our economic, social and cultural lives. And just like Big Tech, online gambling is getting bigger and bigger, through processes of merger, acquisition and consolidation, to a point where some of the super-major operators risk becoming too big to regulate.
This is the absurdity of talking about the 'nanny state', as though we are back in the cosy world of Milton Friedman talking about automobile sales and safety, instead of a world in which the cash reserves of some companies are now equal to the forex reserves of many major developed economies, where capital is left to roam freely around the world, untethered from any semblance of territory, of productivity, of accountability, of reciprocity, of value – if online gambling is not at the heart of the daunting world that we all now face, then what is? Finding the right balance in regulating this world will prove to be one of the great challenges of our age. It needs serious and unflinching minds. I am afraid that lazy talk of the 'nanny state' no longer passes muster.
In September I shall begin a new paper, this time focused on ideas rather than technical details, in which I shall explore some of these questions about economy, society and human agency. I plan to spend my holiday reading books and writing: I have still not read Matt Stoller's Goliath, I would like to go back to Michael Lind and Shoshana Zuboff, I confess that I have not got round to reading Piketty's Capital and Ideology. In other words, I shall be reading a lot of American authors, but I'll also make sure to pack a novel or two in my travel bag (I have recently begun Henri Bosco's Malicroix). Any ideas for other books, please do send me an email. I also aim to write more posts on this blog, now that I have a little more time.
Other than that, I hope to find myself – Covid-19 permitting – in a dusty town square somewhere in the South of France or in Italy, sitting at little table, drinking coffee, writing to the sound of the departing swifts and the kids hitting the horns of their mopeds and the low bass of the lone church bell, and remembering what it means to be a person in the world.
A field of sunflowers near Artonne in the Auvergne today, just by the rue Neuve – and a panoramic view of three mountain ranges: the Chaîne des Puys (with its string of volcanoes), the Plateau de Gergovie (where the Gaul chieftain Vercingetorix defeated Julius Caesar in 52BC) and the long blue line of the Monts du Forez.
These are some words that I wrote three months ago, right at the brutal beginning of the pandemic. They feel like a very different world from the sunflowers today – one full of sadness and anxiety about the future, although of course I hope that they are now just a document of the past:
IT IS THE 7th APRIL 2020. I have not left this town for a whole month. I have barely even left the house except to perform the few essential functions permitted us by the government, which in my case involves the same routine of walking through the fields to the old farm and back, looking at the lambs, and making an occasional trip to the shop for groceries. I have not seen my wife or our son for all that time. We have been cut off from each other by Edouard Philippe's travel ban: me in England, them in France.
Two days ago, the Prime Minister was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth with complications from the disease. Last night, he was taken into intensive care. His officials say that this is just a precaution, but of course no-one really has much confidence in what they are told any more.
Everywhere the streets are empty. There is so little traffic here on the High Street, last night I heard a tawny owl calling under the full moon and inky starry sky. In the morning I am woken early by the sound of wood pigeons and starlings. My friend was shocked last week to see a flock of geese passing over the centre of Paris. I have read that in Poland there are towns where forest deer now wander along main roads which were, until recently, heavy with traffic.
Where humans retreat, animals move quickly forward. Those deer and geese and tawny owls are the early pioneers. Others will follow. By this summer, the great animal dominion will have established itself, until we humans grow strong again and beat it back into submission. This is the endless cycle of encroachment and retreat: curiosity, growth, violence, control, cleansing.
What separates us from the animals is the way in which we translate the cycle into milestones of history. And what a milestone we are living through right now! People on the radio compare it to 9/11 and maybe for some Americans that might be true – the same sense of trauma, the same change of direction, the feeling that things will never be the same again. A generation defined, sent to fight in the alleyways of Afghanistan and Iraq. A new word and way to define the world: security. But while the rest of us got caught up in that fight, and suffered in our own way, it always ultimately felt like Uncle Sam's milestone, not ours.
This is different. This virus belongs to all of us, a sickness given to the whole world. And we all suffer in equal measure. Makeshift mass burial pits in New York. Field hospitals in London exhibition halls. Empty streets in Manhattan, in Manila, in Milan. Over half of the world’s population in lockdown or quarantine. And moving through us all, from air into lungs, hand to mouth, without sight or smell or sound, this disease has taken hold of our shared lives.
The Wuhan Coronavirus. Covid-19. At first, it felt like an abstract story from a world far away. We were already familiar with some of that world, of course, about the animals kept captive and cut up in markets in megacities deep in the dystopia of the world’s second most-powerful country. We knew about the suffering of those animals, in an abstract way, and about the myths of medicine that drives the trade in their body parts – we have seen the photographs of bats laid out in rows on tables, the terrified dogs packed into cages, the boxes of live eels and pangolin parts, the farmed rabbits held up by their ears before being skinned alive, their eyes fixed with fear at the sharpened knife. And we knew already about the corruption in those places, the lies of local officials and the control imposed by the regime.
But this is abstract no more. The virus has become part of nature, and it too is now taking hold of our bodies and our lives.
I think that all this first became an immediate reality to me about two months ago. I was travelling from Clermont Ferrand to London and changed flights at Charles de Gaulle airport. As I waited and wandered around the terminal, looking at shop windows of things I couldn’t afford, I saw a group of Japan Airlines air hostesses walk through security and each one of them was wearing a facemask. They stood in quiet order. It was enough to make me take notice and look around. That is when I saw other people, travellers, with the same: a man sitting over here, a young couple standing over there, each wearing a mask.
This was February 3rd. I took the flight to London and it began to sink in that those abstract stories from far away were becoming signs of anxiety closer to home. We landed in Heathrow and then there was nothing except for a single sign near passport control asking anyone arriving from China to check that they didn’t have a temperature. Apart from that, London seemed to be ticking along as normal. But after the flight I knew that something wasn’t right.
Of course, hindsight means very little now that the virus has coursed through the lungs and the veins of the world. The only thing that matters is staying alive – and making sure that those around us stay alive too.
This is the Spring when everything has been brought to new light. All the structures we have built around us, the mantras we have used to blind us, the baubles we have hung around our necks – all these have been taken from us, and now lie scattered around our feet. I talked about this with [******] on the telephone. Our regret over the time that we have wasted in the black hole of the internet, wasted on rolling news and pay-per-view and WhatsApp groups and Twitter threads, a world of bullshit now exposed for what it is by the cruel, unrelenting light of Covid-19. The years that I have wasted in that world. The idle clicking, the rat runs of videos and links and notifications and sites that have led me nowhere and taught me nothing but have left me empty, exhausted, distracted.
The former Google strategist James Williams calls it the “distraction by design” at the heart of today’s “attention economy”. In one disturbing passage of his book Stand Out Of Our Light, he draws on Neil Postman’s account of a dystopia shared between Orwell and Huxley, and applies it to our new reality of information technology:
Huxley’s foresight, Postman writes, lay in his prediction that freedom’s nastiest adversaries in the years to come would emerge not from the things we fear, but from the things that give us pleasure: it’s not the prospect of a "boot stamping on a human face – forever" that should keep us up at night, but rather the spectre of a situation in which "people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think." A thumb scrolling through an infinite feed, forever.
Once upon a time I used to read, I used to write. Now I talk about both while never really doing either. And it is not just adulthood and a lack of time which has pulled me away from the books I used to love. Yes, when I was a student I could dedicate my days to a world of texts and ideas. But the truth is, I could find the time now. I always carry a book with me, but too often it stays unread while I thumb through my iPhone for gossip from Westminster and Washington.
The sad fact is this: over the years distraction has become a habit, and I fear that it might have turned into a sort of cognitive barrier that is now so automatic, so fixed, that none of us will ever again be able to read a book from beginning to end in the way that we once did. I still watch films and listen to music, of course, and I would like to think that I still think – but who knows? Maybe if things carry on like this, one day I’ll be too distracted even to do that.
The tide moves in and out, it encroaches, it retreats, it leaves a high line of waste on the beach and drags the rest back out to sea. This is where I am today. Standing with everyone else on the empty sands, looking out at the long line of water and then down at the flotsam at our feet.
This is the wreckage that we have been left with: Covid politics, a Covid economy, the Covid remnants of our beautiful, broken world.
The wind was up today, the grass was high, and the lambs — now almost as big as their mothers — huddled together in the shade of the rowan trees.
We found a secret lake, surrounded by willow and ash. One ash has grown around this old fence — and over time, the wood and iron have become enmeshed in each other.
Looking up, its leaves reach into the blue June sky.
The local landowner has built a folly by the walled garden: red brick, gothic windows, a slightly Mughal look. It is splendid. Dad sits by the lake. Everything is still.
The grass full of moths, stag beetles, bumblebees — and me.