07 July 2009

Nobody ever dies of divergent goals

My header is an inelegant echo of an old article by Garret Hardin: Nobody Ever Dies of Overpopulation. What I'm saying is that the current rioting in China is only the most visible sign of an economic and political system gone badly wrong. In brief, the goals of the government and its corporate allies are not only different from, but are in conflict with, the goals of the wider population. And not only different, but diverging. At the beginning of industrialisation it's largely true that what's good for the corporations is good for the people. And when things are improving it's easier to be optimistic that more of the same will bring about a better standard of living for everyone. But at some point, and this is by no means unique to China, government listens less and less to the people, and more and more to the big corporations. The interests of the corporations - essentially reducible to profits, revenue or market share - become identified in the politician's mind with those of the wider citizenry. Then, when even the corporations are ceasing to grow, and the economic figures no longer look promising, the degraded social (and physical) environment assumes a larger, baleful role. The things that cannot be captured by the statisticians and that are of little concern to corporations, begin to assert themselves. Riots, blamed on something else, are one manifestation. We shall see more of this, I'm sorry to say.

One way of realigning ordinary people's interests with those of government and the wider economy would be to introduce government-backed Social Policy Bonds. In a world that is now largely designed by governments and corporations, it's unfortunate that unless something is explicitly targeted, it's going to be neglected and probably suffer as a result. A bond regime could change that by having as its over-arching goals improved social and environmental wellbeing. We cannot know exactly which goals people will decide on, though I'd offer 'avoidance of catastrophe, man-made or natural' as a high priority: one of the larger benefits of a bond regime is that society's goals would be decided by ordinary people ourselves. That would be in stark contrast to the current system, whereby it's assumed they are congruent with those of politicians and corporations, until the inevitable collapse in social cohesion becomes impossible to ignore.

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