Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Enron and on: art as evidence

A recent article from Michael Billington about how theatre is responding to the recession focused on the current production of Enron at the Royal Court. With Enron, there has been just about enough time for some decent reflection, with the additional hindsight of realising how little was really learnt (If the smug 'we told you so' hindsight of The Economist ever irritates you, it's worth reading some of their 1990s articles about Enron). The forthcoming play by David Hare about the more recent financial crisis may present more of a challenge. When the events that theatre confronts are too contemporary, distance and reflection become more difficult - let's call it the Dambusters dilemma.

Stunning reviews from the Chichester Festival has sold the run out. Thanks to a short placement at the Royal Court, I saw the first preview. The production was thrilling, with complex issues explained and exposed with creativity, sometimes subtle and occasionally bombastic. At times feeling like an adult pantomime, the play rarely stretched its audience to examine our own complicity and values. Given the demographic of the Royal Court audience (albeit on a first night), the performance felt at times like old money was laughing at the vulgarity of new money.

I finally understood the fraud at the heart of the Enron story, the mark to mark market. To quote Jeff Skilling:

"It's a way for us to realize the profits we're gonna make now. if you have an idea, if you sign a deal, say that we're gonna provide someone with a supply of champagne for the next few years at a set price, every month whatever - Then that definite future income can be valued, at market prices today, and written down as earnings the moment the deal is signed. We don't have to wait for the grapes to be grown and squashed and ..however the hell you make champagne. The market will recognise your idea and your profit in that moment. And so will the company. If you come up with something brilliant - You know, life is so short. If you have a moment of genius, that will be rewarded now. No one should be able to kick back in your job years from now and take all the credit for the idea you had. "

Might policy benefit from a mark to market approach? It would enable politicians to take credit for achievements that are unlikely to be realised in their political lifetimes. In the last fortnight, I have visited several Hackney secondary schools. Even beneath the veneer of some stunning buildings, it feels like something extraordinary may be going on which could have as much impact on social mobility as anything tried in the past. Hackney's secondary schools now outperform the national average for GCSE results. At Mossbourne Academy, a huge group of students who five years ago would probably have ended up with minimal qualifications are now starting their A Level courses.

In the same way that the gains in primary school test scores in the late 1990s were probably more due to Tory policies than to New Labour's literacy and numeracy hours, some of this government's real achievements may not bubble through for a decade or more.

Whilst avoiding premature evaluation, is there any way to give our politicians credit now for evidence not yet seen, impact not yet felt, or outcomes not yet realised?

1 comment:

Joe said...

I worked in Hackney in the 90's and you could have demolished any number of their 70's secondary schools, put up a marquee and the kids would have had a better education. The Victorian schools were still doing a great job.

It's really important to remember that the dire mess these schools were in was in part the result of a disastrously ill-thought ought, naive 70's building programme, rooted not in what constitutes a good school or a good education, but pure social engineering.

My serious worry is that in 10 years time we will be saying exactly the same about some of these new "schools" although by the way, I wouldn't put Mossbourne amongst them.