12 February 2006

Letting go

[U]nless you ‘inhibit’ the stimulus, say, of sitting down or standing up, you react in the tense and distorted way which it is necessary to change. Wilfred Barlow, The Alexander Principle, 1973 (page 174)
Many of us carry tension in our bodies most of the time. Our bodies have adopted patterns of misuse that make it impossible to relax properly. We are constantly tense; in the back of the neck, shoulders, throat. If you’re lucky you can have lessons in, for example, the Alexander Technique and re-educate the body to its proper functioning; but most of us haven’t the resources to do that – or have so lost sight of our original unstressed state that we don’t see any value in it.

Mentally too, we rarely stop thinking. There is very little space between one thought and another, and our minds are constantly chattering. Meditation is one way of calming the mind, of realising that we have powerful faculties other than thought – insight, intelligence – with which to approach life. But few of us rarely meditate, and thinking is dominant.

Thought is the response of memory, experience, knowledge. Knowledge, experience, memory, are always old and so thought is always old. Therefore thought can never see anything new. J Krishnamurti, You Are the World, 1972 (page 52)
Physically and mentally then, we are tense, preoccupied, under stress and have to re-educate ourselves to a relaxed, intelligent state. Most of us cannot or will not do that: it requires time out and goes counter to our established patterns of doing and thinking.

Is there a parallel in the world of policy? Not just in the way we approach issues, but in the self-entrenching features of policies that are inefficient? Perverse subsidies are costly, wasteful examples: these are policies that are hugely expensive, socially inequitable and environmentally destructive. Yet they persist. Democratic governments in Europe and US, beholden to the interest groups that fund them, lack the will or the ability to stop them.

But this sort of paralysis goes further. What is it that policymakers are afraid of? It’s not saddling their citizens and the third world with disastrously wasteful and destructive policies, otherwise there would be no perverse subsidies. No, the worst thing that can happen to a policymaker is to be seen to try something new that doesn’t work. Existing policies that are proven spectacular failures are fine. Tried and tested are the main justifications for existing policy. If they’re tried, tested and failed, no matter.

Even more crucially, policymakers don’t want to relinquish control. They’re no different from us as individuals: whatever else we can say about them, we can’t accuse them of being relaxed, unstressed and unhurried. They’re constantly working and extremely reluctant to give up any part of their portfolio; as of course are their officials in the bureaucracies. They’re becoming incapable of not intervening, just as physically and mentally, we’re incapable of reverting to a switched-off equilibrium.

The result is that our insight, our great intelligence, is rarely brought into play in answering the big questions: how to end war, how to eradicate world poverty, how to deal with global environmental challenges such as climate change. Instead we get bureaucratic responses: tired old approaches that meet administrative requirements, more funding for established bodies and more control by government agencies. We get more centralisation and so more distance from real people, less diversity of approach, and less responsiveness to changing events.

With a nuclear-armed Iran or any of a number of looming potential catastrophes: a clash of civilizations, climate change, genetic engineering mistakes, bioterrorism or whatever, the bureaucratic approach is not good enough.

Policymakers should think about backing off. Not completely: democratic governments are quite good at articulating society’s wishes, and if they formulated policy in terms of outcomes, they’d be much better. They are also very diligent in raising revenue. But they are proven failures when it comes to actually achieving society’s goals. For that we need inventiveness, intelligence and insight: those qualities, energised by a powerful incentive system, that have generated most of the world’s wealth.

Social Policy Bonds would see government giving up control over how to solve our social and environmental problems. Government would still articulate our objectives and raise finance for their achievement, but bondholders, motivated by their financial self-interest, would actually do the achieving. Under the current system the bodies supposed to be solving our social problems don’t have much incentive to do so. They certainly don’t have incentives to try out innovative, imaginative solutions. A Social Policy Bond regime would change all that. Investors would be rewarded not for their activities, their celebrity status, media savvy or political astuteness, but for actually achieving society’s goals. Just as we can learn to let go and so become more supple physically and mentally, so our policymakers, by giving up total control and issuing Social Policy Bonds, could profoundly improve our quality of life.


Jimmy Jangles said...

Hey R,

I've been a policy beureaucrat for about 6 months now and I'm getting institionalised already! and ur right about the 'how' to implement policy goals - its some thing I worry about - is what I recommend actually the right way ? Some of the stuff I get 2 cents input in scares me!

Ronnie Horesh said...

jj! Good that you are questioning it...which means you probably won't get promoted. Let's have a chat over lunch or a pint. Is that Paris place still open?