01 August 2008

Old Beijing

Reviewing City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China by Jasper Becker, the Economist (subscription) says that one of its strengths
is the depiction of Beijing as a canvas for the projection of others’ fantasies. In the case of 17th-century Jesuits or 20th-century Westerners in search of the exotic, this was fairly harmless. With purges, famine and urban destruction, Mao Zedong visited immense grief on a city he treated as a blank page. But it is China’s recent dictators who have finished off Beijing, bulldozing its past with the criminal approval of the world’s leading architects throwing up “signature” structures....
There's nothing unique about China in this respect. Most British cities, for example, suffer from ludicrous zoning rules, brutal modernism, and the car cathexis of town planners. The desolation of our urban environment is a physical manifestation of how policy is made. Well-meaning (for the most part) government has its own ideas about what's best for the people. But the gap's too wide: they don't really know what's best for us. They have to rely on aggregated data and their own ideology, and it doesn't work. Heavily influenced by big business and corporate goals, our physical and social environments serve abstract, ideological or economic goals.

A Social Policy Bond regime would be different. The economy would be seen as a means to various specified ends, not as an end in itself. And the specified ends would be meaningful to ordinary people. It's possible that aesthetic, social, psychological and environmental horrors - in the eyes of Mr Becker (and me) - would still be perpetrated, but they would then happen with the people's participation and consent. More likely, some economic growth or Olympic razzmatazz would be traded off against a higher level of well-being. That would be policy as if outcomes mattered.

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