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The bottom line? Bigotry is bad for business

Paul Donovan

Respecting the rights of minorities is now considered by many not only a matter of defending basic human rights, but also a key to business success. The Nikkei Asian Review sat down with Paul Donovan, a global economist at UBS Investment Bank, who argues that fighting prejudice would benefit Asia's economies. 

Asian societies seem to have become more accepting of minorities.   This is going to be one of the most important points in the next 15-20 years. With technology, with robotics, with artificial intelligence, the real value in an economy is going to be human capital. You'll have to be able to adapt because of what the World Economic Forum is calling the "Fourth Industrial Revolution." This is going to change society and the way we work and do business -- things like the growing trend of self-employment -- people will be able to work from home.

     Flexibility is important -- if you have prejudice, by definition you're not flexible. "I won't work with that person because I don't like their nationality, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation" -- this becomes damaging in the work environment.

     If you allow creativity, if you allow people to do what they want, if you're not prejudiced and you don't have irrational discrimination, you end up with better innovation and better ideas. You also end up with more failure because innovation is about getting things wrong sometimes -- and accepting it and trying again another way. 

     To quote a BBC science fiction program: "The 21st century is when everything changes." This is the century when the role of the brain becomes a lot more important.

     At the end of last year, I did a series of emails called "The UBS Economic Re-reads." One of the pieces that I sent out was about research we had published earlier in the year on same-sex marriage. I got a lot of emails back saying, "Yes, we agree." But I also got a lot of hostile replies saying that economists should not be writing about this. I think economists should write about these topics, because these issues make a difference to economic performance.

Is there any way to resolve these problems?   Things are changing -- the younger generation has a different approach. One of the things I want to do research on is how social networks over the Internet have changed people's approaches [to prejudice].

     Often if you are having a conversation on one of the social networks, you use a pseudonym, and you don't use your photograph; you use a cartoon or an image of your favorite pop star or whatever. That means you don't know who you're talking to, which means you don't care if they are African-American or Japanese or French or whatever. So you end up with this great blindness. There is a famous American philosopher whose idea about prejudice is: Imagine you are about to be born and you don't know who you are going to be. You don't know what race or ethnicity or gender you are going to be. How would you want to be treated? 

     Japan is very homogeneous. But I remember one of my Japanese politics tutors at Oxford, back in 1990, standing up and saying, "For the Japanese people in this room, I must apologize. I am going to speak in a foreign language." I think he was from Okinawa. He stood up and he spoke in a dialect that none of the Japanese could understand. His point was that even in a homogeneous society, there are still differences. Japan as a consensual society has many advantages because consensus requires toleration. You have to accept views which may not be entirely your own.

Hate speech and other discriminatory actions have become big issues around the globe.   There is a lot of prejudicial political opinion coming to the debate nowadays, which for me is very worrying. It's understandable, though -- in a negative economic environment people often look for someone to blame. I can use the example of my own family. They were working in the east end of London in the 1920s and in the 1930s, and they were third- and fourth-generation Irish Catholic -- a group that was subjected to a lot of prejudice.

     Job adverts at that time used to say "N.I.N.A." -- "no Irish need apply." And then when the economic downturn came in the 1930s, in the east end of London, people of my grandparents' generation lost their jobs and they wanted somebody to blame. So they blamed the Jewish population and you had the rise of fascism in the U.K., which is not something we often talk about. There was a fascist party in the U.K. (the British Union of Fascists) in east London in the 1930s, which died out in 1935. People tend to blame the person who is obviously different. 

Interviewed by Nikkei Asian Review columnist Yasu Ota. Read also online "Without marriage equality, Asia may suffer."

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