07 June 2009

What matters in politics?

George Monbiot, writing about the recent £6.2billion contract to expand the M25 motorway around London, contrasts it with the politicians' expenses scandal in the UK, with its costs to the taxpayer amounting to about one-thousandth that of the road-widening scheme:
The issue is too remote and too complex to ignite public indignation. The scheme’s obscurity has protected it from the outrage now being directed towards [British] MPs. George Monbiot, 'The real expenses scandal', 26 May
What is frightening is how this has now become quite general. Hugely important decisions about the energy, transport, immigration, law and order, are taken almost by default. Public attention, and this is especially noticeable in the UK, settles on images and personality, and on crises only if they have effects that make a dramatic impact when filmed for tv. Slow-moving, complex crises, like climate change or the ballooning of public and private debt, deteriorate over the years, until they manifest themselves unequivocally forms that can be covered in a short news bulletin. There's an inevitability about this, and it's perfectly explicable in a world in which we are bombarded by information. But it is not efficient, because resources are devoted to avoiding images of failure, rather than actual failure. Serious but non-visual crises, as we have seen in finance and the environment, slowly and undramatically gather pace until their effects become unavoidable. By that time, of course, it might be too late to do much about them, even with enormous quantities of spending.

A Social Policy Bond regime could be different. It could target the maintenance of the favourable aspects of the status quo: avoidance of too much climate instability; the absence of nuclear warfare; the prevention, indeed, of any sort of human catastrophe, however caused. The emphasis of much of the media attention in the UK currently is on the personality of the Prime Minister and possible contenders for the leadership of his party. About these matters there is much debate. It is unfortunate, to my mind, that the energy given over to such debate is not devoted to more substantial policy matters. If it were, we could better answer such questions as 'what is "too much" climate stability?', and how shall we best define 'human catastrophe', and take some steps in the direction of solving these and other genuine policy problems. Who would be the best Prime Minister is, to my mind, a distraction. We need, in short, urgently to express our political views in the form of desirable outcomes, rather than in terms of personalities or party politics.

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