My children have a phrase called ‘fomo’ — which stands for ‘fear of missing out’. It is a constant, mildly paranoid anxiety, exacerbated by social media, that all your friends are having a much better time than you are.
There is a related problem in government, I suspect, called FODM — or ‘fear of Daily Mail’. The effect of FODM is to limit the range of political discussion and opinion to a narrow range of predictable, non–controversial possibilities for fear anything more interesting might allow the media to manufacture a scandal.
This is where, unexpectedly, I sympathise with Russell Brand. In fact it was from a Brand podcast that I first heard the phrase ‘Overton window’. This defines the narrow scope of political ideas which can be entertained at any one time without career-threatening consequences. One reason for the rise of Ukip is the disappearance from mainstream politics of a caste of oddballs and nut-jobs (Benn, Rhodes Boyson, Willie Hamilton, Nicholas Fairbairn, etc); these people were extraordinarily valuable, not because you would want anyone to enact their ideas, but because their views gave everyone else the licence to entertain mildly odd ideas which seemed sane in comparison. They enlarged the Overton window. Today, when you can lose your job with a tweet, the window has practically become a peephole.
Yet almost all interesting ideas arouse hostility for a long period before they become adopted (google the ‘Semmelweis Reflex’, for example, or read Thomas Kuhn). I’d go further: no idea can be considered worthwhile unless it creates horrified comment in at least three national papers and is denounced by leading economists.
So my solution is to create a Ministry of Scandalous Ideas (perhaps under Michael Fabricant), its aim being to increase the level of bravery elsewhere in Whitehall through the power of comparison, and to deflect media attention from all other government activities.
Its first proposal would be to save £50 billion on HS2 by legalising cannabis, since with cannabis freely available nobody would care how long it took to get to Manchester or indeed bother to make the trip in the first place. The two problems of speed and capacity would be solved at a stroke. The idea would also promote social cohesion by uniting two disparate campaign groups under the single slogan ‘Save the Chilterns. Legalise Pot.’
I shouldn’t say this, but the power of comparative judgment also offers a very simple strategy for a Labour victory. Since it is known that perception of human attractiveness is highly relative, all Ed Miliband needs do to improve his image is to spend the duration of the election campaign in the company of Ed Balls. Other than Steve Buscemi or the late Max Schreck, it is hard to think of anyone better for this role. Such is the power of relative perception that by election day Ed M wouldn’t just look electable — he’d look like Cary Grant.
Girls going to night clubs have known about this effect for years, which is why four moderately attractive women always ensure they are accompanied by a fifth, less alluring companion, to create added appeal for the majority through the power of contrast.
According to Viz magazine, the practice is so common in the Bigg Market region of Newcastle that a Geordie slang term has arisen for the fifth girl: she is known as ‘the grilled tomato’. This is by analogy with the full English breakfast, where the grilled tomato’s role is in some sense sacrificial: it is there to bring the comparative appeal of the sausage, bacon, eggs and beans into even sharper relief.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.