Janesville – An American Story

IMG-20190304-WA0001

Amy Goldstein’s moving and compelling Janesville is about a small Wisconsin city whose main employer – a General Motors car plant – shuts down in the wake of the global recession.

Unlike many reporters, Goldstein doesn’t just show up for the closure announcement, do a few Main Street Vox Pops and then leave. She stays in touch with people over the next few years, chronicling their successes and set-backs as they start new lives.

Janesville is about a lot of things, the end of the American middle class dream, the limits of politics and politicians and how people cope when their lives are changed by forces beyond their control.

But primarily it is a story about how people cope, and also fail to cope, with change. How families manage when their incomes halve almost overnight, how politicians promise much but deliver little apart from rhetoric and how urban policy dreamed up in universities or think tanks often doesn’t work on the ground.

For example, Janesville benefits from immediate Government funding once the closure is announced, much of which pays for college courses so autoworkers can retrain.

But most ex car plant workers don’t even complete the courses because they are sucked back into the labour market, for wages well below what they earned at General Motors.

Those who don’t get diplomas actually do better than those that do complete college who find their new white collar roles can pay less than half what they used to earn at the auto plant.

And while some families struggle, others manage OK or even do well. Some people amaze with their resilience while others crumble. Some people don’t miss the back-breaking drudgery of the factory, others feel lost and without a sense of purpose.

This is a book that up-ends conventional wisdom and challenges simple explanations. Life in post-industrial Janesville is complex and solutions are not easy to find.

But the genius of Janesville is how it tells moving human stories. Stories that give a unique insight into how policy and politicians can fail people who are struggling to adapt to a harsh new world.

Janesville is available from all good book shops. I got my copy from Blackwells.

Advertisements

The Secrets of Being In the Room

RoomCan I be in the room?

If you work in political communications you’ve probably asked this question a few times and had varying degrees of success. You’ve probably said it in a slightly ironic, Thick of It context as well.

You may have been told there’s no room in the room, that it might not be appropriate for you to be in the room or that the meeting, and therefore the room, may be cancelled after all.

I love being In the Room and I like to think I’m good at getting in there. In my job, it’s my chance to see political big beasts in the wild up close. The other week I was lucky enough to attend a meeting that featured not just one, but two, Secretaries of State plus the Mayor of London and the boss of NHS England.

That’s quite a cast list. In these days of Brexit distraction, attracting a Cabinet minister to an event outside either Westminster or their own constituency on a weekend is an event of asteroid strike levels of improbability.

I wasn’t at the table. I got the usual officer posting of a chair at the side of the room. You may be able to spot me in in the accompanying photo, I’m to the right of a pot plant trying to blend in behind the Secretary of State for Health.

However, if you’re a political nerd like me, being at a meeting like this is heady stuff and generates levels of excitement that Little Mix would if they turned up at your average pre-teen sleepover.

Now, I had of course been told days before that there was no space and it probably wasn’t worth showing up and if I did I could always wait outside and have a coffee. No thanks.

Through a combination of turning up ridiculously early, introducing myself to the organiser and generally assuming an air of entitlement – I am a white, middle class man after all – I got to witness and learn from an important discussion between city leaders and their national equivalents.

So my advice is, get in the room if at all possible and try not to take no for an answer. There’s always room in the room – what’s an extra chair after all?

And what’s the worst that could happen? You’ll be asked to leave. And if that happens, at least you tried and hey, you’ll demonstrate a bit of ambition.

And the rules of In the Room follow if you don’t work in politics. There’s no better way of getting a better grip of the issues at hand than seeing senior people – elected or not – talking about the great issues of the day. Soak it up and learn.

Comms people are privileged to see the big decision up close and, on a good day, be able to influence them. So be cheeky, grab that chair and try to look like you belong in the room.

This Post Originally appeared on Comms2Point0.

Turn off, Tune Out, Drop In

screenshot_20190108-173714

The other day I spent one hour and 20 minutes on Twitter. That’s 80 minutes I could have spent doing something far more useful. To be fair, I was bored, it was yet another heavy news day and I was travelling but I could have used that time to meditate, read the economist or write the next great American Novel.

Instead I was scrolling through the usual tribal and trivial nonsense on an app that I’ve threatened to delete several times but still find hideously addictive.

So how do I know how much time I spent scrolling? My Google phone comes with an app called Digital Wellbeing which tracks my phone usage, encourages me to switch off at night and sets timers on my apps (note, other phones and apps that do similar jobs are also available).

It might strike you as little perverse that the companies that gave us these amazing inventions – you can easily argue that the smartphone is equivalent to the printing press or the steam engine in terms of history-changing importance – now seek to gain corporate PR kudos giving us apps that help us manage the addictions that their relentless marketing has helped to foster.

Anyway, Digital Wellbeing allows you to set a time limit (mine for Twitter is an hour) and then warns you when you reach that limit for the day. You get a five minute warning, then a one minute warning and then it shuts the app down. Kaput until tomorrow. If you want to feel like a future toddler, put on the naughty chair by a robot, this is the app for you.

The trouble is that it’s a bit too easy to override the robot because there’s a link straight from the notification telling you you’re out of time back to the Wellbeing app allowing you to extend your session. If I were Google I’d make this harder, maybe with a password, a quick quiz or maybe a small electric shock.

And while I understand the use of limiting access to certain apps, I wonder what the point of limiting access to all apps – for example the one I use to pay my parking – is.

Digital wellbeing also does other stuff. It can hide notifications, it provides you with a pie chart of your screen time and which apps you’ve the most – Twitter for me, always Twitter – and it’ll even tell you exactly how many times you’ve picked up the phone.

The only thing it doesn’t do is switch the phone off, put it in a drawer and refuse to give it back. For those of you under 15 this requires an invention called a parent.

But Digital Wellbeing and other apps like it do help you realise the sheer amount of minutes you waste staring at a screen. Time that could be better spent on other more meaningful activities, like writing this blog post. It is changing my behaviour, but Google’s app needs a few tweaks before it can match good old-fashioned self-control.

This blog first appeared on Comms2Point0.co.uk

There, beneath the Blue Surburban Skies

Penny Lane ImageIsn’t it strange how sometimes the ordinary inspires the extraordinary?
I was struck by this on a recent trip to Liverpool where we took an open top bus tour of the city. It started amid the scale of the iconic riverfront, one of the greatest urban vistas in the UK, with the towering grandeur of the Cunard building, looking out across the huge dark tidal width of the Mersey.
But this was a Beatles tour and it soon wound its way out of the grandeur of the city to the unspectacular neighbourhoods that provided the formative experiences of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
There was John’s Aunt Mimi’s anonymous, but well preserved thanks to the National Trust, semi-detached complete with blue plaque. The Art College and Liverpool Institute where John and Paul underwent what passed for a formal education, the cemetery where Father McKenzie may have wiped the dirt from his hands and the graffitied iron gates to Strawberry Field.
When John sings ‘nothing to get hung about’ in Strawberry Fields Forever he’s repeating a dire warning from Aunt Mimi that anyone caught playing in the grounds of the children’s home would face severe consequences.
When Paul sings about dragging a comb across his hair and making the bus in seconds flat in A Day in the Life he’s remembering the morning rush to catch the number 86 to school from the stop outside his house.
In Penny Lane itself you can still see what would have been the barber shop and the bank along with the shelter in the middle of the roundabout where the pretty nurse sold poppies in a tray.
This slice of suburbia gave birth to songs known across the globe. But these weren’t places that you might expect would forge world-changing art. There is no obvious conflict or drama, this is the epitome of safe and unspectacular.
The suburbs that were home to The Beatles were largely comfortable, and unremarkable. It was a world of bus stops, parks and church fetes, of quiet post war working class aspiration and eventual disappointment.
The Beatles left Liverpool behind and became worldwide superstars, but the memory of these ordinary places under blue suburban skies helped them produce some of their greatest work.

The psychodrama continues…reflections from #CPC18

party conference shotOpportunity. The word was everywhere at Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week.

The ‘O word’ was all over the main stage, flashed up on digital screens next to walkways and emblazoned on a huge banner attached to the front of Birmingham’s ICC.

It was a strange choice of slogan. By itself the word just looked a bit odd, deserving of a bit more context or explanation. Opportunity for what exactly?

On Tuesday conference turned into an Opportunity. A career Opportunity for a former Mayor of London to restate his leadership credentials.

It has been said before, but a strange kind of madness grips this party at the moment. Hundreds queued to see the Blonde Bounder while excited journalists hovered excitedly with cameras and microphones conducting endless vox pops.

And the queue they interviewed was pretty diverse. Legions of fresh-faced young men in blue suits and open necked shirts, bored looking Sloane rangers and a scattering of proudly politically incorrect retired colonels – some wheelchair bound – could all be found waiting to get into Hall One.

Poor David Gauke, talking about Law and Order to a rapidly emptying main hall nearby. Crime and punishment should be natural Tory domestic policy territory but Brexit and Boris sucks up all the energy and most of the policy thought.

As one delegate told me: ‘Labour’s ideas are bonkers, but at least they’ve got some.”

Around 1pm I heard Boris arrive. Or to be more precise I heard the sound of the stampeding pack of lobby hacks shouting the former Foreign Secretary’s name as he bundled his way into Hall One.

The annual conference of the natural party of government turned to farce by one man and a fringe appearance. Boris had seized his opportunity.  The psychodrama continues.

Might As Well Face It, You’re Addicted to Love…Island

love_island_0

Like most addictions, it started harmlessly enough. A spot of toothache leaving me in need of escapism I found myself sitting in front of ITV 2’s structured reality hit Love Island last week.

A promise to myself only to watch only the one night and switch to BBC 4 disappeared like a playboy Adam’s midnight promise and I found myself addicted to my 9pm to 10pm appointment to view.

If you haven’t seen it, Love Island is the intellectual equivalent of a warm bath. Strangely beautiful people, some of whom without a great deal upstairs, not doing much at all apart from ‘cracking on’ with each other. It is utterly, utterly futile but entertaining all the same.

One night I found myself helpless with laughter as the couples completed a challenge which involved building a tent blindfolded, swapping clothes under a sleeping bag and then eating giant hotdogs. At times it looked like a Nietzschean version of It’s A Knockout.

The funniest thing was that there was no obvious point to this, no prize, no reward by ways of progression in the game. It was just a way of generating enough content to fill the gaps between commercial breaks.

And if you want an example of ‘cross-platform’ marketing look no further. Literally everything the islanders wear or use is advertised, everything from the bikinis they wear to the waterbottles they drink from is available for sale via a smartphone app. This is the Truman Show by the sea.

Although it’s a programme very much about sex – suggested and hinted at but never seen – it also has a strangely innocent, playground quality. The boys and girls gather like children to talk each other in corners of the villa. Couple often go on ‘dates’ which appear to involve little more than a glass of warm Prosecco in the villa’s car park. A kiss is seen as a major commitment, as Jack astutely uttered through his impossibly white teeth the other day – a kiss on the island is ‘like a shag’ in the outside world.

The voice over adds to this post-modern, everything is rubbish really, fun. For example, relishing the irony of contestants accusing each other of playing games on a reality TV contest which offers a prize of £50,000 or joking that instead of gossiping about each other contestants are in fact discussing the merits of a directly elected second chamber.

You see, for a programme like Love Island to work we need to think we’re superior to the parade of gender tropes – bad boy, slutty girl, nice but dim etc – lounging on the decking.

That’s probably why the programme’s rare venture into political debate went viral. In a pop culture/politics cross over event of seismic proportions, contestants started discussing Brexit and Hayley from Liverpool asked if it was about trees. Cue much laughing from the guiltily watching inteligensia who tell themselves this isn’t a gameshow but a self-aware examination of gender politics.

In fact, the discussion that led up to Hayley’s Tree comment revealed knowledge about the basics of trade and travel. Certainly about the same as you’d find in any other situation outside the policy bubble.

But if you want detailed political insight watch Newsnight. I’d write more, but I have to go, it’s re-coupling night tonight.

Why Everything You Think You Know About The World is Probably Wrong

 

Let’s start with a question. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has..

a. Almost doubled

b. Remained more or less the same

c. Almost halved?

Interested in changing the world? Before you start, please read Factfulness by the late Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund. It is a brilliant, perspective-changing piece of work.

The book underlines how most of the stuff we think we know about the world is wrong. We get it wrong because of various instincts that are often fed by media, our schooling, our peers or unconscious prejudice.

The good news, is it’s not just you – everyone else, including most experts, tends to be way off the mark as well.

During his brilliant life Hans Rosling got the chance to talk to some of the world’s leading scientists, doctors, economic development experts and politicians and asked them simple questions about the world like the one above. They also got them wrong. Really wrong. So wrong that Hans worked out that statistically in many cases Chimpanzees could have returned more accurate answers.

Here’s three standout facts that should change the way you look at the world

There is no such thing ‘developing and developed’

Hans calls this the ‘mega-misconception’ about a divided world. Incomes are growing, families are shrinking and access to education is mushrooming. Only 13 countries, or six per cent, of the world’s population can today be classed as ‘developing’ and most people live in middle income countries with access to basic healthcare, transport and education. Remember, just 200 years ago 85 per cent of the world lived in extreme poverty.

The World’s population will not just keep increasing

What Rosling calls the ‘straight line’ instinct might lead you to panic about the possibility of over-population. Today there are around 7.6bn people in the world and numbers have increased rapidly with 5bn people added over the last century. However, the growth has started to slow down, largely due to improved child health – meaning people having fewer and fewer children. The UN expects the world’s population to level out at around 11bn by the end of this century.

Terrorism is on the rise, but not where you think

Terrorism is one of the few things that is getting worse, but let’s put this into perspective – it counted for 0.05pc of all world deaths in 2016 and deaths due to terror are actually falling in the richest countries in the world. The rise is accounted for by continuing terrible civil wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Back in our world, terrorism pales into insignificance compared to other causes of death that don’t get the same level of attention, Rosling calls this ‘The Fear Instinct’. On US soil over the last 20 years 3,172 people died from terrorism – the vast majority on 9/11 – over the same period alcohol contributed to the death of a staggering 1.4m Americans.

______

By the way, the answer to the first question is c. Global poverty has almost halved over the last 20 years. Don’t feel too bad if you got it wrong, most people do. You can do the Gapminder test in full here.

Factfullness,Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling is published by Sceptre Books. I got my copy from the excellent Cogito Books.