What Game of Thrones tells us about corporate inbreeding

25 June 2014 by in Business and finance, Game of Thrones on Business

Incest – it’s not about the sex, says Tim Phillips

‘Alongside kinslaying and the violation of guest right, incest is proscribed by every major religion in Westeros,’ the Game of Thrones Wiki tells us, ‘Children born of incest are deemed abominations.’

Didn’t stop them doing it though. Clearly there’s ‘proscribed by every major religion’ and ‘who are you to tell us what to do?’ For those of you not familiar with the Game of Thrones backstory, King Aerys II Targaryen (the Mad King) married his own sister, Queen Rhaella Targaryen. King Aerys made good on his nickname by going insane thanks to inbreeding, and his son Viserys wasn’t all there either.

game-of-thrones-joffreyThis, you might conclude, would be an argument against imitating his actions. But Queen Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister have, even by the beginning of Game of Thrones series 1, been going at it for years. This has the unfortunate consequence that they produce barmy King Joffrey, a sort of psychotic Milky Bar Kid.

This is a pretty accurate depiction of the sexual behaviour of European royalty through several centuries. For example, John V of Armagnac in the 15th century took up with a young girl called Isabelle who was considered one of the greatest beauties in France. This was controversial because there had been talk of marrying her to Henry VI of England before he stepped in. It was even more controversial because she was also his sister. After they had two children John V promised to keep his codpiece buttoned while his sister was around, so the kerfuffle didn’t exactly die down when they got married (claiming the Pope had told them it was OK), and had a third child.

The literal aristocrats of incestual ick were undoubtedly the Habsburgs, who bred so enthusiastically with their cousins that, by the 17th century King Charles II was ‘physically disabled, mentally retarded and disfigured’. Academic studies calculate that Hapsburg marriages had up to 25% of genes in common.

You don’t have to be a disciple of Sigmund Freud to be aware that incest fantasies are common; every internet porno site has an incest category. Well, that’s what PEOPLE TELL ME. But the Habsburgs weren’t being kinky. Royal incest is about power. It kept the fortune in the family – if your extended family was also in charge of the country next-door, then a political alliance meant a family wedding, whether you were into that sort of thing or not.

So, if we concentrate on the sex, we’re missing the point. This is about power, and keeping power close. Power influences the way the cake is cut: the more you concentrate power, the more of the cake you keep. What psychologists call ‘other-regarding behaviour’ is more common among those genetically closer to us, or those with a similar world view.

It often isn’t a plan, but an outcome of a natural (though misguided) thought process, in which we trust and value people who look and talk like us. People in power share power with their ‘family’. Few discriminate consciously, but only a small group of the population has the social capital (confidence, education, powerful friends and common experiences) to be part of the ‘in group’. Are these always the best people to wield power? Your opinion may be influenced by whether you are in that group or not.

We assume that shareholder capitalism places controls on CEOs and their executive officers, just as royal alliances between families were meant to moderate the behaviour of each ruler: but when the powerful actors are ‘family’, the opposite can often be the case.

This survey shows how corporate dynasties intermarry by sitting on each other’s boards. One result: a small group effectively decides one another’s compensation, and we all know how executive pay has ballooned in the last 30 years at a far greater rate than profits have increased. That’s not criminal. But scandals at Enron, WorldCom and many others – in which the performance of a supine board has been shown to be a contributing factor – shows what can happen when intermarriage gives too much power, with too little oversight, to the King Joffreys of the corporate world.

Tim Phillips is author of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The PrinceBertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, and Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

You might also like: What Machiavelli knew and Robb Stark found out; Why Game of Thrones is better than PowerPoint.


Are the high salaries of footballers like Luis Suárez justified?

23 June 2014 by in Business and finance, Football Business

By Tsjalle van der Berg, author of Football business

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, who you know as Pelé, had the nickname ‘O Rei do Futebol’. He will forever be associated with one particular piece of skill at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. From the halfway line, the Brazilian fired the ball over the Czech keeper, who was way off his line and turned to see the ball dip just in time. Nothing like it had ever been seen before during a World Cup match. Unfortunately I was not allowed to watch it on TV as a child in 1970 because the match was broadcast late at night. So I was very pleased when footage from the game was recently shown on TV. And it was worth watching. The keeper was not even that far out of his goal, and the trajectory of the ball was even more impressive than I had imagined. Pelé even had a surprise in store for me: the ball went just wide.

These days you see the occasional lob like Pelé’s, and now and then one even goes in. In 2014, Wayne Rooney scored a fantastic goal like that against West Ham United. Does that make him better than ‘O Rei do Futebol’? Sadly, no. What made Pelé’s lob so special was that he was the first who dared to try a lob in an important match. It may well be that the Pelé of old would have struggled in today’s football. Today’s players are physically and tactically stronger. No matter. Pelé gave people pleasure because he was better than his contemporaries.

What would have happened if the hundred best players of all time had never been born? Other players would have taken their places as superstars. Someone else would have been the first to lob the keeper from the halfway line. Of course we would have had to do without a few delightful pieces of skill, such as Robin Van Persie’s beautiful header against Spain during the present World Cup. Still, the pleasure had by all the fans put together would not have been much less as a result. Because football’s main attraction is the excitement and the contest against the opposition.

What does this mean for the debate about players’ wages? Are Messi’s millions justified because he entertains so many people and because, partly as a result, people are prepared to pay so much to watch Barcelona on TV and buy club merchandise? From the individual perspectives of Barcelona and Messi, there is something to be said for that view. But you can also take a broader view. Without Messi, someone else would be the world’s best payer, and that player would also be much loved. The ultimate reason fans spend a lot of money on football is that the sport is so popular. And that is largely due to the volunteers, supporters and rather poorly paid players of a previous era who made football what it is today.

So in my opinion, the salaries of present-day players are too high. It’s not the stars that make football. It’s football that makes the stars.

Luis SuárezWithout Luis Suárez, Liverpool would not have finished second last season. They might not even have qualified for the lucrative Champions League; Everton could have qualified instead. So from Liverpool’s perspective, it is quite justified that Suárez earns many millions a year. And for the fans of the club, Suárez is really worth his salary as he has given them so much joy. Moreover, he did a lot to brighten up the lives of his fellow countrymen by helping Uruguay beat England last week. No-one in Uruguay will be begrudging him his salary now. But to the world as a whole, his value is far more limited. For instance, Uruguay’s joy after the two Suárez goals stands in contrast to the pain of the losing country – and Suárez is responsible for that too. Perhaps all the suffering he has caused should be docked from his wages …

Dutchman Tsjalle van der Burg is an economist and Robin Van Persie fan

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What Machiavelli knew and Robb Stark found out: power is greatness

16 June 2014 by in Business and finance, Entertainment, Game of Thrones on Business

Warning: this blog contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 3, Episode 9

I couldn’t watch the Game of Thrones episode featuring the ‘Red Wedding’ on the day it was first broadcast. For 24 hours I couldn’t read the tweets or posts from my friends which went like this:

Other friend: didn’t see that coming!
Other friend: I’m glad no one told me that [spoiler]…

robb-stark-game-of-thrones-red-weddingThis stuff was hard to avoid. The Red Wedding more or less crashed the internet. So (spoiler alert) I managed to avoid knowing the full detail of the slaughter of heroic avenger Robb Stark and most of his remaining family. I could boggle afresh at the mass murder of men, women, children (born and unborn) and dire wolves. Next time someone describes a drunken wedding to me as ‘carnage’, I’ve got a handy visual reference.

But the internet-crashing shock wasn’t fundamentally about death. There’s loads of it on TV. I recently watched Michael McIntyre’s chat show. His guests died every week.

It’s because (more spoilers here) we’ve invested in the revenge story of the Robb Stark and his family who, in Hollywood narrative terms, should clearly win their war against the Lannisters because that’s the way things are done in fairy stories. Therefore, when they get cut into small chunks at the Red Wedding, and fail epically as a result, it’s not the way things should happen. Consider:

  • Robb Stark’s wise and mostly good father, who loved his kids so much that he even fathered an extra one while he was off having a war, was murdered by the Lannisters for political reasons. Therefore avenging him is a righteous quest.
  • Lannisters are weaselly snivelling cheats who make Shakespeare’s Richard III look like Nelson Mandela.
  • The Starks have an attractive macho mud-caked integrity. They recall the great Wigan Rugby League team of the late 1980s; not least because they sound a bit like them too.
  • As a result the Starks do not dress in silly foppish clothes or wear ridiculous little crowns. Again, not like the nasty Lannisters.

Many of the stories we read, watch and tell, the religions and beliefs we follow, the news we watch and therefore the assumptions we make are based on the idea that virtue gets a reward. We build these stories into a ‘Great Man’ (it’s almost always a man) narrative, in which a few extraordinary people shape our destiny for the better. This was first expressed by the historian Thomas Carlyle in 1841, in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, in which he wrote, ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’

Niccolo Machiavelli, writing 300 years before him, had a rather more nuanced appreciation of the Great Man. When he wrote The Prince as a leadership manual for medieval rulers, he knew two things: first, that it really helps to get stuff done if you are perceived as great. He was less fussy about actual greatness or virtue – perhaps because he’d spent a lot of time around the Medici and Borgia versions of the Great Man. The second thing, as Machiavelli warns us towards the end of his celebrated book, is that ‘greatness’ is fundamentally about happenstance: being the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

And so he undermined the Great Man Theory before Carlyle created it. But we look for a neater story, that great men are fulfilling a destiny. The Starks must win because they deserve it. It also helps us to take orders if we believe that we follow people because they are not just powerful, but better than us in some way.

Great Man Theory underpins the modern idea of the hero CEO too. There is an economic theory known as ‘just desserts’ (in the US, ‘just deserts’) which argues that the financial rewards of the additional value created by an innovation or business should flow to the person who created it. Greg Mankiw, one of the greatest economists alive today, recently wrote a paper on this called ‘Defending the One Percent’. It’s easy to read, and argues, for example, that innovators like Steve Jobs deserved their extraordinary rewards.

There are two arguments against this. First of all, Steve Jobs didn’t design the products that Apple sells. Innovation is a team effort, involving thousands of deserving, hard-working people, some of whom get minimum wage.

Secondly, even if we think there might be a limited number of great men to reward, who exactly are they? Who gets the revenues from the iPhone? Is it the person who invented the iPhone, or the telephone, or the one who invented electricity, or who created outsourced manufacturing, or even the internet? Any one of them would have a legitimate claim on a piece of the action, and few of them profited anything like as much as Jobs.

Machiavelli knew that the necessary condition for becoming a Great Man isn’t to possess greatness according to some moral or intellectual standard (it might help, but looking at the people in Mankiw’s 1% it’s clearly not essential). The perception of greatness comes from the power, not the other way around. People have to think you’re going to win, or they won’t give you a chance to prove it.

But the Red Wedding reminds us (as does much of Game of Thrones) that, while this is a necessary condition of greatness, it’s not sufficient. You also have to actually win: history never even thinks about virtuous people without power, and soon forgets losers. So when our Great Man Theories are hacked to bits in front of our disbelieving eyes, it’s uncomfortable. But it’s a useful reminder of the sources and limits of power.

You might also like: What Game of Thrones tells us about corporate inbreeding; Why Game of Thrones is better than PowerPoint.


World Cup 2014: will goal-line technology stop injustice in football?

13 June 2014 by in Business and finance, Football Business

By (a currently very happy) Tsjalle van der Berg, author of Football business

Right at the beginning of most John Grisham books, a person appears who is confronted with circumstances which completely disrupt his happy life. Sometimes this is mainly bad luck, but often serious injustice is done. And then the person starts to fight the injustice, making the story a bestselling one. As an economist, I like that; high sales are good for the economy, and for employment too. Yes, injustice brings many good things – thanks to the hero who fights it of course.

Grisham is an open-minded man, but as a writer he refuses to have any discussions with the characters in his book. He simply does not listen to them. That’s good, because his heroes would tell him injustice should never be tolerated. This is how real heroes think. So if Grisham did what his heroes wanted, there wouldn’t be any injustice at all in his books – not even at the beginning. That would damage book sales. So Grisham is doing the right thing, in my view.

During the round of 16 match between England and Germany at the 2010 World Cup in South-Africa, the referee did not award a goal when Frank Lampard’s shot crossed the line. And so England lost. Yes, great injustice was done! In the media, many well-known players and coaches protested and pleaded for goal-line technology to assist the referee in such cases of doubt. Good. Our football heroes are examples for people all over the world, and they should make it clear that fairness is good.

World Cup smart watchBut players and coaches are no more than characters in the book called ‘Football’. The author of that book is FIFA. This author has, unlike John Grisham, recently listened to the characters in its book. And so the present World Cup has goal-line technology, which will make the game more just, but arguably less exciting to watch.

Of course, FIFA president Blatter can argue he is not only a writer, but also a character in the book called ‘Football’ – so he should set a good example for children too. And children will understand that the new technology is fair. But if this is Blatter’s argument, why is FIFA itself so corrupt? Why does it let big sponsors make money while the poor in Brazil suffer as a result? What kind of examples are these? If FIFA really wanted to fight injustice, video replay for referees should not have been its first priority.

Anyway, we have to face it: technology has become part of the game. But I still remember that match between England and West-Germany in 1970, at the World Cup in Mexico. The match was thrilling even before it started, as the Germans wanted revenge for that highly debatable English goal at the World Cup final at Wembley four years before. Hopefully, England will meet the Germans during the elimination stages of the current World Cup, in Brazil. If so, everyone should watch that one special game. It will be the first World Cup in which footballing heroes can expect real justice in undoing the injustices of the past. Now all England needs is for Lampard to score that same goal again!

Pre-order Football Business

Take a walk on the wild side for the sake of your health

11 June 2014 by in Business and finance

By Kate Cook, author of The Corporate Wellness Bible

Exercise doesn’t have to involve sheathing yourself in Lycra and pounding mindlessly to hip-hop backbeats in front of banks of TV screens. In fact, according to The Guardian, a recent report by the Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support discovered that walking for half an hour a day five days a week could save 37,000 lives a year and lead to a reduction of almost 300,000 in the number of cases of type 2 diabetes, it can even make weight-loss easier.

For centuries, the daily constitutional (walk) was the best way to stay in peak condition whilst at the same time gaining a bit of perspective on life. In many ways it still is.

Walking can mean more than popping out to the corner shop for twenty Marlboro. Why not take a chance on adventure walking? Even if you only plan a walking weekend every so often – a special weekend in the country once or twice a year – it will inspire you for the smaller everyday stuff like getting out to the park or walking to work. You will need to make sure you have your ducks in a row before you start. I’m talking about finding some great countryside and going for it, but making sure you’re kitted out with the right gear before you set out. It’s unlikely you’ll kick off with a life-or-death hike across the Arctic tundra, but wherever you are, you do need to spare a thought for your safety.

Equipment for your own miracle
One of the first steps to take (excuse the pun) is to make sure that you have all the right gear. And great wet-weather gear is a must. I’m not talking fisherman’s yellow galoshes and capes – these days you can get very light wet-weather gear that will fold up and fit into your pocket. Don’t just get the top, invest in the trousers as well – you’ll thank me for this one day, as there’s nothing worse than being in the middle of nowhere with wet, cold and soggy trousers and no chance of changing them for the next 50 miles. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate gear!

The second vital bit of kit for your proper walking experience is the right boots. Remember that you could well have thick socks to allow for so don’t buy them too small. Talking of socks, it’s worth getting proper walking socks. A good outdoor shop should be able to advise you on the right kind of boots and socks for you. The boots need to be protective of the ankles, waterproof and not too heavy. They also need a good grip – the proper lace-up ones are ideal (check out www.snowandrock.com).

Nordic walkingThe other essential piece of kit is your rucksack or daypack. Choose one with a middle strap that goes round your tummy as this will help to protect your back. These days there are rucksacks that make sure the material isn’t next to your back so you don’t get too sweaty carrying it. Make sure you get one with loads of pockets for maps, bits of string, etc. Also make sure you have basic survival gear: matches (in a little plastic bag so they’re not soggy when you need them), a Swiss army knife, foil blankets, water bottles, oatcakes, nuts and maybe some dark chocolate (temperature permitting). Also, pack a whistle just in case you need to attract attention. And a hat, good sunglasses and some sunscreen. A map is always a good idea, as long as you can read it! And you’ll need to carry at least a litre of water. Obviously in boiling temperatures you’ll need more. Don’t forget to pack a small medical kit that includes some rehydration sachets (electrolyte formulas) and some plasters for those pesky blisters.

Put actual dates in your diary and organise to go walking with friends. Going on long walks can seem quite scary if you’re new to them and can’t read a map, but the gear is only necessary if you’re going to take the whole thing seriously as obviously short walks in the countryside on designated footpaths don’t need full-on survival gear. Always take water with you, however!

Take a holiday that includes guided walks in wonderful countryside. Lots of companies offer this sort of thing now: try www.atg-oxford.co.uk, which offers walks for all levels of fitness and experience. Also check out www.walksworldwide.com and www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk.

Bost your organisation's health

Why Game of Thrones is better than PowerPoint

9 June 2014 by in Business and finance, Entertainment, Game of Thrones on Business

If you’ve never watched Game of Thrones, you may be missing out on more than mere entertainment. Maybe it’s because you don’t really like stuff about wizards and orcs. Don’t worry: no wizards or orcs in Game of Thrones. Granted there are a couple of dragons, although they aren’t in it much. But that’s not the point. Regardless of your feelings on dragons, with Game of Thrones, as with so much in life, you stay for the stories.


First off – I totally get it. When I was at school, the geeky kids used to play a board game called Dungeons and Dragons, which was like computer games would be if no one had invented electricity. I sat in once, and it confirmed my wish to stamp on the dungeonmaster’s glasses after everyone else went home.

Fast forward 30 years, and I’m glued to Game of Thrones every week. Is this because I’ve successfully dealt with my anger issues, or are the dragons just better these days?

Clearly I’m more tolerant of things that couldn’t ever really happen but are fun to think about, having had my mind unexpectedly expanded by authors such as Alan Moore and Peter Ackroyd. And Game of Thrones isn’t short of mind expanding situations. There are seven kingdoms full of people cheating, fighting, having sex, fighting the people they just had sex with, cutting off those people’s heads, cheating some more, fighting the people who still have heads who are angry because they got cheated, … you get the hang of it. Sometimes the writers bump off the most important character, just to make us go WHAT?

Game of Thrones gets confusing the moment you stop concentrating or nip out to make a sandwich, but I rather enjoy that bit. I am constantly thinking, ‘Hang on, I thought he had been tortured to death in the local brothel last week’ or ‘Is that woman he’s having sex with his cousin or his great aunt?’ These thoughts remind me, perhaps somewhat alarmingly, of an adolescence spent in Odin’s discotheque in Driffield. That was the 1980s, kids. In many ways Game of Thrones recalls that era: a tendency to big hair and shoulder pads, no mobile phones, Charles Dance.

But I digress; trying to make sense of little mysteries should be one of the great pleasures of our adult lives. It is literally what makes us human. As the biologist William Calvin explains in a 2006 paper on ‘The emergence of intelligence’:

Our abilities to plan gradually develop from childhood narratives and are a major foundation for ethical choices, as we imagine a course of action, imagine its effects on others and decide whether or not to do it.

In Odin’s, as in Game of Thrones, most of the time the response was, ‘Let’s do it, what’s the worst that could happen?’

So, we do not learn by being told, but by doing and observing, and working out what happens next. We learn by creating a story out of experience. But, when we grow up and go to University and then get an office job, what does the world give us to make sense of life?

PowerPoint, that’s what.

PowerPoint is anti-story. We go into a room. Someone reads out 30 slides which all seem to be lists. Sometimes the lists magically appear, point by tedious point: as suspenseful as watching a tap drip. Sometimes the lists have little sublists, which have their own titchy sub-sublists. The titchy lists are in italics. No one tells you why. Sometimes there will be important diagrams which pretend they tell a story, but MAKE NO SENSE.

A proper story has what Chris Anderson, the man who created TED talks (and therefore a man who knows about storytelling) calls the ‘aha moment’: the pleasure when we work something out for ourselves, when we realise something without someone telling us it. The fog lifts.

Jokes have this structure, conversation has it, sport has it, walking into a bar and choosing a beer has it, even shopping on Amazon has it. Game of Thrones has it in seven kingdoms, all at once. Presentations do not, because the people who write them don’t bother to put it in. You’ll learn far more about your co-workers from Game of Thrones than you will from a dozen teambuilding seminars.

Being confused for a while is fun, because it’s more satisfying. Presentations are worse than real life, because they take out the stories, the bits that help us work it out for ourselves. If you present to me and there’s no aha moment, you know what I will be thinking: I’d like to stamp on that presenter’s glasses. And if that sounds like negative feedback, it’s better than what happens to most of the characters in Game of Thrones.

You might also like: What Game of Thrones tells us about corporate inbreeding; What Machiavelli knew and Robb Stark found out.