28 April 2011

Where we're at

The world seems beset by systemic crises: financial, economic, environmental and social. We appear to be approaching limits on all fronts. The overwhelming reaction has been to do what we've been doing before, except more so. In the economic sphere, this means going for growth, as if that will solve all our problems. It won't. The mis-identification of growth with human well-being is clear to most these days: growth takes no account of distribution, leisure time or its externalities; in particular the environmental and social impacts of growth that is geared entirely to the narrow, short-term indicators of accountants on behalf of senior executives and major shareholders of large corporations. Government, supposedly the major corrective to these negative impacts, has become complicit with the large corporations. The world more and more looks like a contest between government and big business on the one side, and ordinary people and small businesses on the other, with the odds overwhelmingly in favour of the big and global at the expense of the small and local.

If government is going to use its clout, and is serious about doing so for the benefit of ordinary citizens, it would do better to go above the heads of the large corporations. Even if, at one point in history, it made sense to identify the success of big business with that of economy and society as a whole, it no longer does so. That doesn't mean government should actively campaign against big business. It does mean that it should focus directly on the outcomes that it wants for ordinary people, rather than assume that the health of 'the economy' (by which it usually means large corporations) means a better-off population.

I still have some hope that governments will move towards something like Social Policy Bonds, at least in the long run. Society is so complex and intertwined that any relationship between conventional policy and its outcomes is just too difficult to identify. We see governments doing all sorts of bizarre things that do little except benefit its favoured interest groups while alienating the rest of the population: bombing Libya, doling out massive sums of taxpayer revenues to wealthy landowners and agri-business corporates, subsidising the banks, the fossil fuel industry, piling up nuclear weapons and the rest. It cannot be sustained. My hope is that government, rather than carry on diverging from the wishes of the people it's supposed to represent while ramping up the repression, will instead begin to express its goals in terms of outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people, and target them directly.

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