24 April 2014

Mickey Mouse targets: gargantuan impact

From The Economist:
Like almost every other local government in China, Xianghe’s has an urbanisation target: 60% by 2017, up from around 50% today and ahead of the national target of 60% by 2020. Since the global financial crisis in 2008, governments have been hardening such objectives as a way of stimulating growth, and have been borrowing heavily to meet them. Emerging from the shadows, 'The Economist', 19 April
Targets such as these, including especially the universal (apart from perhaps in Bhutan) and much-revered de facto target of governments everywhere, Gross Domestic Product, are Mickey Mouse in conception and in their relationship to ordinary people's well-being, but not, unfortunately, in the impact they have on us all. They are top-down targets, favoured by the political caste and their functionaries. They become the sole focus of bureaucrats' attention to the exclusion of anything else. When it comes to urbanisation in China, the impacts are socially and environmentally disastrous: local governments scramble to meet the targets by throwing peasants off the land they and their families have been farming for generations. One result, The Economist continues, is...
 ...the rampant urban sprawl encouraged by local governments’ ability to seize rural land at will. Such unrestrained expansion may work in parts of America where there is plenty of empty land (albeit at a cost to the environment and often to the quality of life). In China, where urbanisation has forced around 40m farmers off their land over the past three decades, usually with little or no compensation, it will not.
There's a stark contrast between the ad hoc, spurious, almost random nature of targets like urbanisation rates, and the serious negative impacts they have on everyone other than the people who dream them up. 

People who make policy for large societies need to rely on some sorts of numerical indicators of society's goals and how quickly we are reaching them. But indicators and targets should be well thought out and as consensual as possible. They should be in themselves, or be inextricably linked to, things that we actually want to achieve. In other words, they should not merely have (perhaps) been associated with social well-being in the past. They should be outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people, because that's what matters most and that is what will encourage people's engagement with policymaking and hence buy-in to policies that affect us. Mickey Mouse indicators like urbanisation, or GDP are just not good enough. They speak of a growing and dangerous alienation of rulers from ruled.

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