05 July 2011

Taking command of the long term

Greece has 800,000 civil servants, of whom 150,000 are on course to lose their jobs. The very existence of those jobs may well be a symptom of the three c’s, ‘corruption, cronyism, clientelism’, but that’s not how it feels to the person in the job, who was supposed to do what? Turn down the job offer, in the absence of alternative employment, because it was somehow bad for Greece to have so many public sector workers earning an OK living? Where is the agency in that person’s life, the meaningful space for political-economic action? She is made the scapegoat, the victim, of decisions made at altitudes far above her daily life – and the same goes for all the people undergoing ‘austerity’, not just in Greece. Once Greece Goes..., John Lanchester, 'London Review of Books' online, 30 June
We live and work within a policy framework decided by people at high altitude. Or perhaps 'decided' is too purposeful. Policymakers are only a little less victims of the system within which they operate than ordinary workers. They have few definite, long-term objectives to work for. Perhaps the maximisation of economic growth (or growth per head) which, if it considered at all is assumed to generate enough resources to solve every sort of problem - even those it creates. Other guidelines are even more vague or rarely articulated. The avoidance of social upheaval; the avoidance of 'too much' pollution, or unemployment, or crime, or whatever. Because these guidelines are vague, or seldom made explicit, they have the status of declarations of intent. All this means that society's actual long-term guidelines are either decided by default, or subject to the manipulation of the powerful; including large corporations, government agencies, and the largest trade unions.

So we find, and not only in Greece, explosions in public sector employment, and public debt. We'd all be better off society's longer-term goals, including debt levels, were openly debated and made explicit. They need not be absolute, but there would be incentives for people to achieve them.

Social Policy Bonds, because they are tradeable, could be used to target long-term goals, including guidelines within which, say, debt, or crime, or pollutions must lie. Societal goals, such as limited debt levels, are more stable over time than the supposed ways of achieving them, and we could all benefit if they were targeted explicitly. Outcomes targeted under a bond regime could include those whose origins are uncertain or contested. Just because policymakers don't know all the causes of crime, or climate change, say, does not mean that they cannot explicitly target them and, in effect, contract out the work of identifying cause and effect to a motivated private sector.

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