5 Aug 2019

There seems to be common agreement among first world liberals that we live in unusually difficult times. In my view this a case of “people like us” on steroids. Populism (possibly explained here) has caused great discomfort to people who have grown up feeling pleased with themselves and their kind. Watching them explain their troubles to some of the 29 million people who live in the Dehli region of India, a country with annual GDP per capita of $2,000, would perhaps make great reality TV (note to self – pitch that to someone).

But we should resist the temptation to be judgemental if we can (though clearly most of us can’t). Instead I would like to suggest an exercise that can be summed up as “exactly whose problem is this?”

When people annoy or upset us we want it to be their problem. We are implicitly saying that they should take responsibility and do something about it. Sometimes, if they ignore us we will get increasingly stressed and suddenly it’s our problem.


It boils down to this: what is the driver of the sentence “Your behaviour is upsetting me”. Is it your behaviour or my being upset?

Her are two examples:

Malodorous Malcom has a personal hygiene problem. He must be told.

Smug Simon and Suzi are blissfully (nauseatingly) in love and don’t seem to want to hang out with any of their old friends. They are starting to alienate people.

I think it is pretty clear that Malcolm needs to own the problem, with the support of your helpful advice. If he refuses to acknowledge that no one will stand downwind of him he will soon discover that he loses friends.

In the case of the smug lovebirds, it is highly likely that your alienation is a price that they will readily pay in return for the indulgence of their mutual obsession. All you can do is to smile and nod and secretly pray for a traumatic break up.

When we are upset we want to blame and we often lose sight of where accountability actually lies. But rational thought can help us decide whether we need to address someone else’s behaviour or our own emotional reactions.

This exercise of being realistic about whose problem it is can illuminate every corner of life. But it is such a hot issue that it leads to a great deal of obfuscation and denial of responsibility. Such instances can be readily identified whenever a public official says “We take this issue very seriously.”


Here is perhaps the most high profile example of confusion about whose problem it is.

The US Democratic party could not and still cannot believe that Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential election. They accuse Trump of being racist, sexist and homophobic. Essentially, they think he is Malcolm, so obnoxious that people will be driven away.

Unfortunately for the Democrats and their chances in 2020, Trump is Smug Simon, blissfully in love, if only with himself. Until the Democrats accept that the voters really did choose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton – in short, that it is their problem – they will not be able to think rationally. Yet when I watched the TV debates featuring the current twenty candidates, I saw no evidence of anything but the competitive championing of agreed liberal issues. (My guess is that the candidate that would most worry Trump is Elizabeth Warren but I know nothing).


As an investor, I like company managements to be clear about the problems that they own and to be as robust as possible in the face of lobbyists who have no financial skin in the game. Nowhere does the attempted imposition of problems feature more than in the energy sector. And BP plc is everyone’s best of breed in the dog house.

BP is most notorious for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Subsequent to the event itself (which claimed eleven human lives in addition to the environmental impact) there was no ambiguity about whose problem it was. President Obama, who had reportedly received $71,000 contribution from BP for his 2008 election campaign, publicly referred to BP as British Petroleum, the name that it ceased to use in 2001. The implicit message was that this was something that Britain had done to America and that the Brits must be made to pay. This catastrophe has cost BP in excess of $65 billion in fines and compensation

A swift glance at BP’s annual report could lead one to believe that BP is a leading environmental campaigner. It’s a challenging stance because more than half the world’s energy comes from oil and gas (BP’s area of expertise) and more than a quarter from coal (the horror, the horror). Moreover, those who care about the inhabitants of Delhi and the citizens of the other 57 nations with GDP per capita below $3000 are quite hoping that global GDP will double in the next twenty years. (That’s in BP’s annual report too).

Aside from the employment of 73,000 people, BP paid $5.7 billion in taxes and $6.7 billion in shareholder dividends in 2018. If you have any kind of private pension the chances are very high that you are a beneficiary of those dividends.

So running BP is quite a challenging task. Plenty of people hate you and plenty of people rely on you for their income, their pension and the energy that fuels their daily lives. The second group is your problem: the first really is not.


Arise Sir Mark Rylance, who no longer wishes to be associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company (with which he last performed thirty years ago) because BP sponsors its offer of £5 tickets for 16-25 year olds. This is now a problem for the RSC because, sadly, this grand theatrical Oscar-winning knight is not offering to subsidise those tickets himself. So it appears that the RSC will continue to accept the BP money, at least until 2022. Perhaps Sir Mark will have thought of an alternative arrangement by then.

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