10 November 2009

England: 1381

Writing in History Today, Dan Jones describes England at the time of the 'summer of blood' in the year 1381. This was the Peasants' Revolt, when the lower classes, emboldened by the labour shortages that resulted from the Black Death, flexed their muscles. In the summer of that year they began the first English rebellion of workers against their masters. Mr Jones points out the 'profound echoes with our current times':
...ordinary people protesting against an ill-manged, expensive war [against France] and the corruption of the super-rich who were seen to grow fat while the rest of the population were taxed through the nose; consciousness of and resentment towards the interfering presence of government in everyday life; the fear of homegrown subversive elements in society, organised in secret cells and mobilised through local communities. The Peasants' Revolt (subscription), 'History Today', June 2009
Sounds familiar? asks Mr Jones, and indeed it does. Ordinary people, in much of the developed world, are having a rough time of it. Our political system seems biased heavily in favour of those who work for government agencies, or those in big corporations who can successfully influence government. The losers are small enterprises and the public. In so many broad policy areas: finance, the physical environment, the social environment, our politicians have taken the easy option, postponed the difficult decisions, and allowed problems to grow so that they have become systemic threats.

That way of doing things cannot, in my view, continue. Unfortunately, the scenarios on offer seem about as unappealing as the rioting , looting, terror and counterterror that followed the Peasants' Revolt. If that sounds far-fetched, consider this display of extreme attitudes depicted by Paul Krugman:
Last Thursday [5 November] there was a rally outside the US Capitol to protest pending health care legislation, featuring the kinds of things we’ve grown accustomed to, including large signs showing piles of bodies at Dachau with the caption “National Socialist Healthcare.” It was grotesque — and it was also ominous. Paranoia strikes deep, 'New York Times, 9 November
One way of closing the gap between people with different views, and the yet more grievous gap between politicians and ordinary people, is to recast policy in terms of outcomes. Our current system exaggerates the impact of special interests: it is these who bankroll the political parties, and they have little interest in the longer-term concerns of wider society. Ordinary people, rightly, feel disenfranchised and either adopt extreme attitudes, become cynical, or disengage from politics altogether.

Yet most people would probably find themselves in agreement about the policy outcomes they'd like to see: universal literacy, and basic minimum levels of income, housing and health care, for instance. There would also be a surprisingly wide consensus over the need to achieve some sort of climate stability - despite the huge gulf between people on different sides of the debate about what's actually happening to the climate.

Social Policy Bonds could help to close these gaps. Where people differ is less about the outcomes we want to see, and more about the ways in which government goes about achieving them - or failing to. A Social Policy Bond regime, with its focus on outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people, would draw more people into the policymaking process. There will always be limited resources, and under a bond regime there would still be debates about priorities and costs. Politicians would have to relinquish their power to decide on how goals are to be achieved; they would, in effect, contract that out to the market. That would generate huge efficiency gains, but it would also mean an informed, public that participates and helps determine policy. Such a public would be far less likely to engage in the scary display of extremist attitudes that occurred last week in Washington DC, or the destructive, bloody actions that occurred in England in 1381.

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