Gillian Tett: listen to the silence – how anthropology helps make sense of the world
In a special video podcast, the FT's Gillian Tett tells Merryn Somerset Webb why what people aren't talking about is just as important as what they are, and why combining anthropology with economics can help us make sense of asset prices, markets and the world in a way that pure hard science can't.
• This video is also available as an extended audio podcast – listen here, or on whichever platform you get your podcasts.
MSW: Hello, and welcome to this special MoneyWeek podcast, special because it’s not just a podcast. You also get to see Gillian on video. I am Merryn Somerset Webb, editor-in-chief of the magazine. And with me today is someone that I think an awful lot of you know very well already, Gillian Tett. Gillian is the chair of the Editorial Board of the Financial Times and also editor-at-large for the Financial Times and, as many of you will know, a very prolific author.
And her most recent book – and the thing we’re mainly going to talk about today, although I can’t promise you we won’t go off on a few tangents – but what we’re mainly going to talk about is this book, Anthro-Vision, How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life. It’s the life bit I’m really after. Gillian, thank you so much for joining us today. Welcome.
GT: Well, it’s great to be on your show, Merryn. Thank you.
MSW: Can we start by just telling us a little bit about the book? Why this book, and why now, crucially?
GT: Well, the book was written to answer a question that has often been hurled at me during my career as a financial journalist, which is what the heck is anthropology and why should anyone bother? And I understand why people ask that because I’ve spent the last few decades working as a journalist for the Financial Times, writing about economics and finance and business, and these are areas of life that have traditionally scorned anthropology as a hippy, weird, Indiana Jones-style discipline, if they knew anything about it at all.
And the reality is that certainly when I was a student three decades ago, what anthropologists did seemed to be completely divorced from the world of economics, finance and business.
But I passionately believe that today, as we try to make sense of where the world is going, if you’re an investor or an executive or a policymaker, as we try to build back better, to use that ghastly cliché, many of the lessons anthropology has been very quietly preaching for years are incredibly relevant today. And they’re also relevant for anyone who is trying to make sense of what’s happening with money.
MSW: Well, it’s interesting because you are known for… well, known for a lot of things, but one of the things that people think, of you, about most is this fact that you were one of the few people who quite early on realised that there was a problem in the financial system pre-2007. And I think that you used your background as an anthropologist to give you some insight early on into how that was going to unfold.
GT: I am absolutely convinced that it was my training as an anthropologist that enabled me to foresee the financial disaster of 2008. And the reason is very simple. What anthropology does is train you to look at the world in a holistic, joined-up way and to pay attention not just to what people talk about but also what they don’t talk about. As an anthropologist, you don’t just listen to the noise. You also listen to silence. You ask yourself the whole time, what are people not talking about?
And you also pay a great deal of attention to the rituals and symbols and cultural practices that define our lives and shape our social boundaries and essentially express the kind of world view that we all hold inside our heads because we inherit it from our surroundings. We’re all creatures of our own environment.
But for the most part, we can’t actually see how our environment shapes us and embeds all these assumptions in our lives because – there’s a wonderful Chinese phrase, a fish can’t see water – our assumptions are so familiar that we take them for granted. And this matters hugely for finance and business and investing.
And what happened in my case in terms of the run-up to the 2008 crisis was that I went to an investment banking conference in the South of France back in 2005 and people there were talking about credit derivatives. It was a bunch of bankers and financiers. And I tried to use my anthropological training to look at what they were not talking about. And that enabled me to see many of the risks which later turned out to be so damaging for the global financial system as a whole.
MSW: OK. So having seen that, was there any way to use your anthropological experience to get a sense of what was going to happen in the way that we managed this pandemic when it first arrived? So that was our last great crisis, 2007. And now we’re... we’re not in the middle of it, but hopefully towards the end of this great crisis. And obviously I’m guessing that even your anthropological skills couldn’t assume the pandemic coming when it came. But did it give you some insight into how policy and behaviour would unfold after it?
GT: Well, actually, as it happened, about a year before the pandemic started, I wrote a column saying that policy leaders were missing the risk of a pandemic, an epidemic, and that it was incredibly alarming and worrying. And the reason I said that was because one of the themes that came out of the financial crisis is that we all tend to hand over extraordinary amounts of power to tiny groups of geeks, tiny tribal groups of geeks, who have control and mastery of knowledge, which is often wrapped up in jargon in a way that causes everyone to avert their eyes.
And that’s really about recognising that we’re all tribal and we need to just accept that and think about what that means for risk management. And the kind of tribalism we saw in the financial world pre-2008, where you had a tiny group of financial geeks who knew all about credit derivatives but nobody else did, was replicated in Silicon Valley basically from 2008 onwards. I also wrote pieces saying that I could see the techlash coming precisely because of the similarities of the patents. It’s also been replicated in the world of medicine and finance.
And the reality is that lots of people who know about epidemics, epidemiologists and others, have been saying for years that there’s going to be a global pandemic. This is another problem which was hidden in plain sight. And as with finance and the tech sector, Silicon Valley, what’s happened is that not only have the geeks been very bad at transmitting their concerns but wider society has tended to ignore it precisely because it seems to geeky.
And I guess one key message I’d say for investors, who are most of your readers and watchers, is that we cannot afford to ignore geeks or to look to ignore the kind of tribal patterns in the information ecosystem which prevents us seeing risk coming down the tracks.
MSW: But then we find ourselves possibly in a different situation now whereas that we’re listening incredibly carefully to the geeks, certainly in the UK, all the time. We do absolutely nothing but listen to the geeks and talk about relying on the science, without looking at the wider implications of policy at all. So you can flip too far back the other way. Maybe a couple of years ago, we weren’t listening to our scientific geeks nearly enough when it came to pandemics. But right now, we’ve gone the other way.
GT: Well, I wouldn’t say we’ve gone the other way at all. I have a separate issue which is that one thing the experience of COVID in the last year shows crystal clearly is that if you just listen to hard science when you’re trying to deal with policy problems, you actually can’t fix anything usually.
Because something like a pandemic is not just about the medicine. It’s also about changing human behaviour. And one of the reasons why the pandemic spun out of control so badly in the early months was because people weren’t paying enough attention to human behaviour and how to change that when it came to things like lockdowns. And that was a tragic mistake.
I hope that changes with the vaccine distribution, because again, you’re not going to get vaccine herd immunity unless you manage to change behaviour and look at culture in places like America. Because we’ve had Joe Biden come out and say he wants to have 70% of the population vaccinated by July 4th. In fact, what’s happened is you had a huge uptake initially. It’s slowed down in the last month or two, sorry, last week or two, because basically the unvaccinated are now mostly people who actually don’t want to be vaccinated.
So culture matters, alongside science. And that’s true of most policy problems we face today. And again, it’s something that investors need to think about. When you see a government standing up and doing what someone like Gus O'Donnell, the former head of the British Civil Service, had called for and combining behavioural and medical or data science, when you’ve got that combination explicitly championed, then you actually have reason to feel a lot more comfortable and optimistic about a proper solution coming down the tracks.
MSW: But don’t you think the populations should feel slightly wary of the idea, this new idea that governments can learn how to control behaviour? By the way, it makes me feel slightly nervous that there are whole units of government sitting around, thinking about how to influence the behaviours of large groups of the population.
It might work in some ways to reduce pandemic risk, etc. But nonetheless, the idea that, let’s figure out how to control the behaviour of large groups of people as a part of government policy, as has always been part of government policy but increasingly so, is mildly worrying, or not?
GT: Well, I think there are reasons to be concerned about the whole question of government population interplay at the moment. The starting point would have to be to recognise that there is actually a very big zeitgeist shift going on right now.
And going back to this point about a fish can’t see water, investors and policymakers and business leaders at any one point in history find it very hard to imagine the assumptions that they hold very deeply at the moment, which tend to be the ones that have been broadcast to them for the last ten or 20 years, they find it very hard to imagine that’s going to change. And they might know theoretically that 50 years ago or 100 years ago, the zeitgeist was different, but we all tend to assume that whatever we believe at any point in history is the natural, evident way to behave.
And so basically, ever since Thatcherism came up, and Reaganism three, four decades ago, there’s been this very strong free market consensus that’s come to seem almost natural. I used to go to Davos back before 2008 and Davos was driven by a holy trinity of ideas, which was a belief in free markets, globalisation and innovation. And that was just taken for granted and it was assumed that history would only go in one line, one straight line, and that the world would only become more globalised and more in thrall to innovation.
Now, what’s happening at the moment, I would argue, is actually you’re seeing that pendulum swing, and ideas that were very much more dominant 50, 60, 70 years ago are creeping in. And you can see that in almost every area of our lives, whether it’s the degree to which central banks are now involved in affecting market prices.
Whether it’s even in a country like America, you’ve now got, after COVID-19, a full-on drive to try and get business and the private sector integrated to deal with social problems, Dharpur, things like that. That idea has been replicated all over the place now behind the scenes. Whether it’s discussing ways for the government to be more involved in many corners of life in the UK. So, that’s underway.
The question of whether governments could or should be using behavioural science to understand and influence people I’d actually put a bit differently. Because if you accept that this is underway anyway, I’d rather have government trying to read what the population thinks and does and potentially nudge it, to use that very fashionable phrase, nudge it in intelligent ways rather than not.
And I’ll just give a tiny example to show what I mean by that. There’s a lot of evidence from the world of medical anthropology, which is the sphere that blends medical and social science, that if you want to solve a pandemic or any public health challenge, you’d do much better if you work with communities in a bottom-up way, rather than top-down.
Most of what went wrong with the UK government’s efforts and the mandatory orders was very little sense of community awareness or bottom-up sensitivities, even though the UK has this incredible network of local NHS units.
And if they had actually tried to take a much more behavioural science-driven approach into the pandemic, thought about messages, gave people a lot more agency, control over how they managed their own risk budgets, I think they would’ve done a better job... which actually did do a very bottom-up approach to the pandemic and actually has stressed the idea of giving people agency over their own risk tolerance in a way that frankly I think has been far more effective. I know this podcast isn’t about that, but it’s something I feel strongly.
MSW: No, I think it’s a really interesting idea, that if you give people agency over how they manage their own risk, they tend to use it very sensibly. And I think you’re beginning to see that in the UK now perhaps in that suddenly, when I look around me, I see fewer and fewer people really paying any attention to the minutiae of the regulations.
They’re all managing their own risk as they go about their daily lives. And I think it’s going to be, for that reason, very difficult to bring back any new full lockdowns in the UK, now that that shift has happened. But you’re right, that’s not what this podcast is.
GT: But, you see, I would actually extend this to an area where this podcast is focused on, which is investing and long-term financial planning, because again, I believe strongly that giving people more agency over their pension choices, about their longer term financial plans is again a much more effective way. And that’s one area where financial science can absolutely blend with behavioural science when policymakers and financial institutions think about these issues.
MSW: OK, interesting. Well, listen, I tell you what, let’s move onto the chapter of your book that I found… Well, I found them all pretty compelling actually, but the one I found most compelling and I think might be most relevant to our readers. And that is the one on ESG. It’s called Moral Money, which is an area you set up the FT to follow the growth of the ESG movement. So, Moral Money are what really drives sustainability. And you had, I thought, quite an interesting take on this.
GT: Well, first of all, the reason why I set up Moral Money with colleagues was because again, I was trying to listen to the social silence and what people weren’t talking about, or rather, what journalists were ignoring. And dialling back three, four years ago when the world was dominated by discussions about Donald Trump, I noticed that a lot of activity was happening around the ESG space, which you can dismiss as mere PR spin and greenwashing and stuff, but was still actually taking up a lot of time and energy and activity.
And anthropologists know that the kind of ritualistic, ceremonial stuff that people do can’t just be discounted as an empty, meaningless gesture because there’s a reason why people are doing that. And the interesting thing to ask is not whether the ritual is real but why people felt the need to engage in the ritual.
And the reason why people felt the need to engage in PR releases about ESG, that ritual, was because essentially, what was going on I’d describe as a shift from tunnel vision. By that I mean that in the late 20th century, the Western world developed a lot of amazing tools to make sense of the world which were really marked by the fact that they were bounded and defined by the box or the tunnel that was used to look at the world.
So economic models are defined by what you put into the model, the inputs, and they don’t really look at the context. Balance sheets, corporate balance sheets, same thing. You basically define what’s on the balance sheet, it’s a bunch of profit and loss statements, money flows, and everything else is chucked into the footnotes. Big data sets only collect the data you ask them to. And anthropology is passionately committed to trying to look at the context and trying to look at things holistically, trying to look beyond the edge of the model.
And essentially, what I think has been going on is that people have been using these bounded tools which are often brilliant, but when the world started to become a lot less predictable and more unstable, from 2007 onwards, they instinctively began to realise that actually a lot of really important stuff was either in the footnotes of the corporate accounts or external to the model and called externalities.
And the really important stuff included things like environmental risk, like social upheaval, like reputational risk, all of which could suddenly rear their heads and stun or wrongfoot anybody who just relied on that bounded model. So one way to see what’s happened with ESG is that really, in the last decade, companies and investors have been groping for ways to get more lateral vision, frankly, a more anthropological vision on life, and trying to do that in all kinds of ways.
And ESG, in a way, is simply a movement to say we realise that tunnel vision tools don’t work. We need to broaden the lens, be aware of consequences and context at all costs and try to find ways to not just think about that to make the world better but, above all else, to defend ourselves.
Because at the end of the day, ESG dresses itself up in terms of saving the world, some of the people who are involved in it really do want to save the world, but for the most part, it’s actually now about risk management and about not so much not doing harm to the rest of the world but not doing harm to yourself.
MSW: Yes. So not being seen to do harm to the rest of the world, and therefore not doing harm to yourself.
GT: Sometimes it’s about not being seen to do harm to the rest of the world and it’s just for show. And it goes back to this point about ritual mattering, symbols mattering, or rather, that you need to ask why someone feels the need to embrace a symbol, in this case ESG.
But in some cases, there’s genuine harm. Anybody who had ignored sexual harassment issues would’ve suffered as a result of hashtag MeToo. It’s not just symbolic sometimes. Anybody who ignores questions around, say, stranded assets in the oil and gas sector and fossil fuels would’ve suffered a nasty shock, when you’re seeing what’s happened to energy companies’ share prices over the last couple of years.
MSW: But is what’s happened to energy companies’ share prices over the last couple of years about the existence of stranded assets or about the pressure on them to stop doing their core business and shift over to a different business.
GT: It’s a combination. And that’s really where anthropology says, OK, the subjective and objective matters, both of them. Economists are trained to just look at objective facts, hard facts, things they think are eternal truths. You can argue about whether they are or not.
Anthropologists try to look at webs of meaning, interpretation, symbolism, how people imagine things. The reality is they both interact enormously every day. And if you just look at one and ignore the other, in both directions, you miss how the world works.
And what’s happened with energy companies is a classic example of that because frankly, there are hard facts about energy usage and fossil fuels and stuff like that, but what’s actually as important in determining share prices is how that is subjectively perceived. And that involves reading the zeitgeist.
And at the end of the day, that is why investors ignore the lessons of anthropology at their cost, because anthropology is about smelling and interpreting the zeitgeist. And you can’t do that… Sorry, if you don’t do that, you may miss what’s actually driving a lot of asset prices.
MSW: You have a very interesting… At the beginning of your chapter on ESG, you have an interesting story about talking to Bernard Looney from BP and how you felt that something changed in him when he started listening.
GT: Well, the thing that struck me about Bernard Looney when I chatted to him was that I’d worked on the Lex column back in the early part of the noughties and spoke a lot to energy executives then because I was writing about energy companies for the Lex column in the FT and, I promise you, most of them could not have been more scornful about environmental activists then. They were pretty scornful about anthropologists as well, but they absolutely dismissed what they were saying. And there was a sense of extreme arrogance in the energy sector then.
And when I spoke to Bernard Looney last year, what absolutely stunned me was that he told this story about how he’d been at an AGM back in 2019 with BP up in Aberdeen and saw protestors demonstrating and saw some of them wiggling their way into the AGM to ask questions.
And instead of actually just dismissing them and saying, what a bunch of weirdo hippies, he actually said he wanted to go and talk to them, and then subsequently, as he tells the story, spent many hours listening to what they said, trying to see the world through their eyes, which by the way is the 101 of anthropology, trying to walk in someone else’s shoes as best you can.
Now, he’s telling that story because it makes a great yarn. Again, going back to symbolism and ritual and ceremonial displays, he has a lot of vested interest to try and convince the world that he’s putting BP onto another path. So yes, it may just be PR spin. I’m keenly aware of that. But the very fact he feels the need to even engage in that PR spin and actually spend time listening and talk about having listened to environmental protestors shows how the world has changed.
I actually think, from what I can tell, that actually the act of listening has made him more aware of the zeitgeist and how it’s changing. And it’s one reason why BP did try to get ahead of the curve in terms of introducing or announcing measures on climate change responses much earlier than many rivals like Exxon. But it’s an interesting story about how CEOs can listen if they want, or often don’t. And I think that’s the kind of symbolic exercise that, again, investors discount at their peril.
MSW: Yes. Now, the great leader of the ESG world when it comes to finance is BlackRock’s Larry Fink, right, leader of the biggest fund management company in the world. Now, Larry writes a letter every year, telling everybody what he expects them to do, etc.
Do you think that that’s the right role for the fund management industry, inside this whole world of moral money, for there to be a big man leading a big company, telling global companies how they should behave? Or does that lead us down a difficult non-democratic road?
GT: Well, there is a very interesting question there about two things. And you have to break it down. Firstly, should asset owners, should people who are invested in companies express a view about how that company is run? Absolutely. That’s the bedrock of capitalism. And without that, you don’t actually have proper capitalism, unless the owners have skin in the game to then talk about it and try to influence it.
The second question then is who should talk on behalf of the shareholders? Should it be the original tiny mom-and-pop shareholders, the ultimate asset owner, or should it be the intermediary, the asset manager? At the moment, you don’t actually have a particularly effective system for quickly collating the views or even votes of the ultimate asset owner and so much of that power is essentially outsourced to the asset manager.
Sometimes they use that power well, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they outsource that to things like the proxy advisors as well. And I think there are very big questions about whether you think the proxy advisor should have so much power or not and whether there are ways to actually get individual shareholders more engaged, exercised or even more aware of what’s going on.
One of the things that Larry Fink talks about is that additional technology will enable greater democratisation and take the power and influence out of the hands of asset managers like himself, put it back into the ultimate asset owner’s. That’s what he claims he wants. Let’s see whether it happens or not.
But if you accept that at the moment, asset managers are the people who are most engaged as opposed to the ultimate asset owners, should they be talking about things like climate change, ESG? Absolutely. Because if they think that there is something coming down the tracks which is going to affect the value of the assets, like environmental risk or like government responses to environmental risk which is a key issue here, they absolutely should be talking about that and using lateral vision, not tunnel vision, to assess the value of things.
GT: But to give you one tiny example, Larry Fink has been banging on about TFCD now for a year or two. TFCD is the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. It’s one of the ultimately geeky areas that I happen to be obsessed with because Moral Money was created precisely to educate FT readers about this kind of geeky stuff that people either dismissed because it sounded so irritatingly do-gooding or so full of jargon, they couldn’t understand it.
So TFCD is one of a series of accounting standards which are trying to get companies to disclose what’s happening in terms of the environment. Now, Larry Fink has been talking about that for two years. Most other people haven’t. In fact, very few other Western business leaders have been talking about TFCD.
Guess what? That was a mistake on the part of everyone else because the G7 came out, finance ministers, a few days ago and said basically, TFCD is probably going to be mandatory. Or they actually said they threw their support behind making TFCD mandatory. A lot of people went, uh, what? A lot of people went, really? Can’t imagine that. But actually, you know what? The UK said it’s going to do it within the UK jurisdictions. Several other countries are doing it as well. I think there’s a good chance America will do it.
And so anyone who ignored that kind of stuff is now facing a need to scramble to get up the knowledge curve as fast as they can. And I suggest you read Moral Money to understand what’s going on, at the Financial Times, because we are writing obsessively about this stuff. But that’s one example of where ignoring the zeitgeist can cost you.
MSW: Gillian, there’s one more thing I wanted to ask you about that I’m hoping that you may be able to throw some light on from an anthropological point of view, which you haven’t discussed in the book. But it’s about this business in the US, and in the UK as well at the moment and various other countries, of there appearing to be a major shortage of labour. So in the US, suddenly, we’re seeing that there are 6-7 million fewer people in the workforce than there were at the beginning of the pandemic.
And there’s lots of discussion about why that is. Is it to do with childcare? Is it to do with fear? Is it to do with unemployment benefits? Is it to do with people just wanting to change lifestyles completely? And I just wondered if you had any thoughts on that because it’s interesting to all of us whether that’s a short-term dynamic related to the pandemic or whether, in fact, it represents some kind of inflection point in the way labour operates across the US, and possibly the UK too?
GT: My main thought is that this is a classic example of why people like the Federal Reserve and the Treasury urgently need to do some anthropological studies in addition to their top-down economic studies. It reminds me a lot of what was happening during the sub-prime mortgage boom where essentially, economists had these lovely models about how default waterfalls were supposed to happen in the US private sector and in some consumer debt.
And the assumption they’d been going on forever was that basically if a household was going to default, they would default first on their credit card, then on their auto loan and then lastly on their mortgage debt. That was the assumption because that had been the assumption in place for the previous few decades, and that was embedded into every single model out there for rating agencies and the Federal Reserve.
Of course, what actually happened on the ground was that really starting at the turn of the 21st century, the waterfall flipped over and people began to default first on their house, then on their car and then on their credit card if they were under stress. And the reason was that it became very easy and less culturally punished to default on a house, to walk away from a house. You needed to have your car to basically survive in America and you can always sleep in your car. And if you don’t have a credit card, you can’t do anything, including digital activity.
Now, anybody who’d gone out there as an anthropologist and looked at what was happening on the ground or spoken to real-life people or even done what happened in The Big Short, which is to get out of your ivory tower and go and meet some real consumers, in the movie, The Big Short, these were strippers who’d taken out sub-prime mortgages, could’ve seen that. But you couldn’t see that with your top-down economic model.
And when it comes to the labour market today, that’s another classic example where, yes, you can devise these wonderful models of how the labour market is supposed to work. Yes, the Federal Reserve is now using those to determine what’s going to happen to interest rates.
And, in fact, one of the crucial reasons why the Fed is not raising rates right now, and I know this from talking to them, is because they keep saying, we’ve got 6 million people unemployed in the economy and therefore there won’t be wage pressure, or whatever it is. I can’t remember whether it’s 6 million or whatever. But whatever, they keep saying because we haven’t got full employment, there won’t be wage pressure.
To which I’d say, for heaven’s sake, think back to 2005 and 6 and realise that sometimes you need to work out whether the actual underlying root cause of what’s happening in the economy has changed or not and whether something has happened culturally and in the social fabric which means that your economic models don’t work so well anymore.
And I suspect in this case, there’s… I don’t know because I’ve not done the research and I’ve not seen anyone doing any research yet. But I can guess that those attitudes towards work have changed. Concepts of community support may have changed. There are things happening which aren’t actually in the models.
MSW: And you can see that because there is wage pressure, however…
GT: There is wage pressure. And again, another thing that economists can’t capture is the fact that you’ve got… How information networks work is critical. So economists develop their models on the basis of rational expectations and assume that each individual in a model is a complete individual, isolated individual, like an atom in a test tube, and that they have access to knowledge, and have access to knowledge in an equal way and the velocity of that knowledge is constant, a bit like the velocity of money.
The reality is that knowledge moves through information networks. People are influenced by other people in their community. They’re not completely discrete individuals. And the patterns of information flows have actually shifted quite radically in recent years through this thing called the internet or social media.
And I have not seen any studies looking at how, say, people tweeting about price rises influences consumer expectations and could play into a different dynamic going forward, which once again, to avoid… I know I keep hammering home this point, but you have to look at the context of economic models and look beyond the model. And that’s really what anthropology does.
MSW: Gillian, that’s a brilliant place to end. Thank you so much. MoneyWeek readers, all other watchers, go out and buy it. It’s brilliant.
GT: Thank you.
MSW: If you’d like to hear more from Gillian on a variety of subjects, of course, please do read the FT, look for Moral Money, and you can follow Gillian on Twitter, @gilliantett.
GT: Thank you, Merryn, for listening and talking. And thank you to anyone who is interested. And if any of you out there have got kids who say they want to study anthropology instead of accounting, don’t get…
MSW: Make sure they…
GT: Yes, don’t get too irritated. You can actually find a job afterwards.
MSW: Brilliant. Gillian, thank you so much.