05 February 2009

How did it happen?

From a letter to the editor of the Economist:
There was little to argue with in your appraisal of the [GW] Bush years and the man himself. What is so deeply troubling is that you couldn’t see this coming in 2000. Mr Bush came to that election with one of the most disturbing biographies of any candidate this past century—a man who incurred the wrath of his college professors as lazy and arrogant, a frat boy for sure, simplistic and indifferent to complex ideas. He went on to become an alcoholic, business failure, a military no-show during the Vietnam war, a legacy candidate for state office, and a governor whose term in office was little more than a stage-managed prelude to running for president. Jack Luft, Letter to the Editor of 'the Economist', 31 January
Even less excusable was the re-election of GWB in 2004, when his administration's small-minded incompetence was clear for all to see. How could it happen? I have blogged before on environmental stunts and I think the public reaction they elicit explains much. To put it briefly, we are turned off, mightily, by being told what to do by people who think they know better than us what's good for us. Now in lots of instances they do know what's better for us, and this is the tragedy. Too often the rational, well-intended argument is - in the minds of those of us who are neutral or even faintly in favour of the argument - negated by the apparent smugness of those making it. So to spite the self-satisfied we puckishly vote against them. It's unjust, silly, irrational and destructive; but it is something that, perhaps, the US Democratic Party has learned. Leadership, at least of reasonably well-educated people in democracies, is not (just) about having the right arguments and doing the right things: it's also about engaging with ordinary people and winning them over.

Disastrous as it was, the re-election of GWB was perhaps not the worst outcome of our childish tendency to act against our best instincts in order to take the 'do-gooders' down a peg or two. In conversations I have with highly intelligent people about climate change I detect the same reaction. In this instance, it's irrational to the point of suicidal, but no less real for that.

So do I have any positive suggestions? This could be a case where humility plays a role. Not only in presenting our arguments - though that is crucial - but also in recognising that while we can clearly see social and environmental problems, the best ways of solving them are not always known. Better then to advocate climate stability, say, than to demonstrate against coal-fired power stations or additional airport runways. The advantages are two-fold. First, it's more difficult to antagonise the public, and easier to win them onside, when discussing outcomes that are universally desired, rather than to make judgements on their behaviour. Second, it's more efficient not to prejudge the best ways of solving our complex social and environmental problems and to let people decide them for themselves on the necessary trade-offs.

And this is where Social Policy Bonds enter the picture. Under a Climate Stability Bond regime (for instance), a motivated market would constantly assess the necessity to do something about climate change, and it would constantly be working out the optimal mix of solutions to the climate change problem. In my view the setting up of such a regime, being focussed on a universally desired set of outcomes rather than the supposed means of reaching them, could involve the participation and hence the support of a far wider public than the alternatives that are currently being discussed. Without that support on this and other urgent challenges, I am afraid we are headed for catastrophe.

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