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November 08, 2011

University Pension Disputes / Soft Science, Hard Facts, Power Narratives

Writing about web page

Just saw this link to the latest on the USS pensions valuation. The title there is acutely misleading; the word "reveals" and "valuation" leading me, as intended, to believe that there is an actual gap of £2.9bn in the scheme, rather than a predicted gap.

I had an interesting chat in July with a lecturer from the Accountancy Dept. here at Warwick. I was surprised to hear that they had a module called, 'Accounting in Context', which teaches critical perspectives in the field. I thought only the Arts used that kind of woolly thinking, but it turned out, to my naive surprise, Accounting is an equally interpretive discipline. They even have a journal called Critical Perspectives on Accounting.

So when a particular team of actuaries drum up a set of "assumptions", a reader can't automatically assume that they're operating with the employees' best interests at heart. In fact, the current dispute over pensions is entirely a battle of narratives over the state of play of the USS pension fund.

And, given the stacking of power, and the USS board, in favour of the employers, the only thing in the employees' favour is their right to withold labour. And then it comes down to a battle for dominance of one narrative over another. This article, then, relies on people's assumption of accountancy and financing as being a kind of 'hard subject', with concrete numeric outcomes, and so on.

Yet, as we all know, the concept of forecasting is an inexact science. The modern soothsayer is fond of using graphs in place of animal bones, spreadsheets in place of the crystal ball. The science underlying these approaches are the same - reading clouds, reading markets, reading habits. Behind it all, is an attempt to understand and predict human nature: the brief, whimsical burst of years we spread across the planet and leave behind in a sear of smoking footprints.

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