13 December 2009

We need explicit, meaningful, policy goals

Society's size and complexity mean that numbers are going to have to be used to help determine policy. Numbers inevitably distort, but if things aren't measured they tend to be ignored at the policy level. We want numbers, ideally, to represent human wellbeing - which immediately raises the question of whether or how animal and plant life are to be weighted when it comes to setting policy goals. There are many other questions, but where numbers correlate strongly with what we want to achieve, there's no objection to targeting them, a la Social Policy Bonds, as part of a wider political process. The key is to ensure that the correlation remains strong over the target range. For instance, the correlations between, say, educational level, household income, or longevity, and wellbeing are strong at the lowest levels of all these variables, but become much more tenuous as we move into tertiary education, higher incomes or age ranges.

If Social Policy Bonds were ever to be issued, they would benefit from the work already being done to quantify even such complicated things as human wellbeing - see, for instance, the Human Development Index. Now it appears that people are trying to aggregate and quantify climate change. A group called the International Geosphere-Biosphere programme has launched the 'IGBP Climate-Change Index'. This and the HDI would need refinement before they could be explicitly targeted, and there would always be debate about what they should include and relative weightings.

Even then, they might not be perfect as policy instruments. But what is the alternative? In the absence of explicit targets that are meaningful to ordinary people we are seeing the good intentions of politicians being almost entirely hi-jacked by the short-term financial interests of rich corporations. If that sounds far-fetched, you have only to look at the levels and persistence of government (taxpayer) support for the banks.

We the paying public can't do anything much except admit defeat and settle back for the next set of bills. In the meantime, perhaps we should try and think of a name for the new economic system, which certainly isn't capitalism: that, remember, is all about 'creative destruction', and the freedom to fail. That's exactly what we don't have. The most accurate term would probably be 'bankocracy'. Bankocracy, John Lanchester, 'London Review of Books', 5 November

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