20 February 2007

Centralized shop window policy

Writing about the increasing uniformity of shop window displays in the US, Paco Underhill writes:

[Owing] to the structure of retail chains, window displays are designed by specialists and contained in loose-leaf binders stored in a central office somewhere, intended to work equally well in every setting, meaning they don’t work particularly well in any setting.
There’s a striking similarity here with government; another large organisation trying to control everything from one centre. The consequences of failure though are more serious than a few lost sales when government is involved. They can be seen in schools that fail to educate, soaring crime rates, and worsening environmental problems. There is an extreme aversion to adaptive, diverse policies. Schools aren’t allowed to fail; crime is seen as a problem solely of punishment and prisons; climate change must be tackled almost exclusively by reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Life would be quite different under a Social Policy Bond regime. Yes, there would be uniformity – but of targeted outcomes, rather than the ways to achieve them. It would be up to the private sector to explore and implement the most cost-effective programmes. Investors in Social Policy Bonds would have built-in incentives to be efficient. Until then, though, social and environmental policy will suffer from being overly centralized, and as unappealing as an ‘average’ shop window display. Mr Underhill concluding his chapter on shop windows might as well be writing about government policymaking:

There still are window dressers here and there – in Manhattan you’ll find them in the best stores, and everywhere else in America you’ll find them in the smallest ones. But in between those extremes, windows are now dressed long distance. They’re one-size-fits-all.

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