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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Gittins takes a punt « Previous | |Next »
October 3, 2007

Ross Gittins has had a good go in the Sydney Morning Herald at explaining why the electoral tide continues to flow towards the ALP despite a booming economy. Given the good times, why is electoral support for the Coalition soft?

Gittins op-ed--- When the economy gets personal--- picks up on The Relationships Forum's recent report, Stating the obvious? The case of integrated public policy. This Report opens up a good line of critique of neo-liberal economics from a social democratic perspective.

Gittins says that if Labor wins it will owe much of its success to a shift in the public's preferences, with more weight being given to environmental and social concerns. He argues thus:

If Labor does win this election, two issues will have contributed greatly to that victory. First, rising public concern about global warming - the evidence of which we believe we can see mounting weekly.... Second, worries about Work Choices...... it's easy to see how making it easier for employers to require people to work on weekends, public holidays and at other unsociable hours - not to mention making it easier for bosses to change rosters at the last minute - could leave parents worried about juggling family responsibilities and others wondering how much they'll get to see of their friends.

The Howard Government has relied too heavily on the advice of economists ands paid too little attention to the environmental and social implications of their decisions.

The economy, the environment and the social are kept in separate boxes.The environmental and social consequences are left out of the economists' basic model, and they're dealt with later and separately at best and, at worst, only after they reach crisis point.

The general response by the free market or neo-liberal economists to this critique is to basically argue that it costs big money to fix environmental and social problems, and that only by giving priority to economic efficiency and competition will we be able to afford the cost of the improvements to the quality of life.

Despite the importance of efficiency and competition to ensure a growing economy, this neo-liberal response wrongly assumes that the economy exists outside of, and separate from, the natural environment and from the social lives of the people who active in the economy on a daily basis. As Gittins points out:

In truth, the economy exists within the environment. It's human activity - most of it economic - that wrecks river systems and causes excessive greenhouse gas emissions. And while the economy can damage the environment, we're now seeing the feedback flowing the other way as shortages of water and adverse changes in the weather damage the economy.

Similarly with the social:
Similarly, the economic dimension of our lives - our need to earn income from production and spend it on consumption - can't sensibly be divorced from the social dimension of our lives.Few of us live and work just for the joy of owning stuff. The deeper meaning in our lives comes from our social relationships with parents and siblings, spouses and children, co-workers, neighbours and friends.

Gittins concludes thus: 'to say we should ignore this collateral damage so that, becoming richer, we can more easily afford to fix the problems we've made worse, is muddle-headed. It's saying we must destroy the village to save it.'

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:17 AM | | Comments (8)


you are right about this kind of argument opening up a good point of critique of neo-liberal economics from a social democratic perspective. It's how Paul Shepanski, the lead author of the report Stating the Obvious? The Case for Integrated Public Policy, see it . He says:

Our research has found that governments' decision-making has become dominated by a type of economic fundamentalism, not only in Australia but also in other high-income countries around the world, such as the UK.

Neo-liberalism is an economic fundamentalism.

The Stating the Obvious report is a collaboration between the Relationships Forum Australia and Britain's Relationships Foundation, and it calls for government policies to be evaluated with three dimensions in mind: economic, environmental and social.

rising prosperity and increased wealth has not resulted in happiness. That's what mainstream economics claims.

In the Sydney Morning Herald Matt Wade quotes Tanya, a young undecided voter from the marginal western Sydney electorate of Lindsay, thus:

It feels like we're both earning really good money, but we're both pushing shit uphill trying to get ahead.

The treadmill metaphor is used to describe this situation.

The Australian Treasury has a "wellbeing framework" that does show an official recognition of the need to adopt a more integrated approach to policy development.

However, the Treasury says this still draws from "broadly applicable economic principles, which are Treasury's comparative advantage in the provision of policy analysis and advice to government".

As I understand it the relationships forum people applauds this framework but wants governments to go much further. They argue that there is now bipartisan consensus on the principles of sound economic management, including independent management of interest rates by the Reserve Bank and prudent budgeting.

The next step is to move to managing for "true national wealth" by fully recognising the validity of progress in the three crucial areas of national life - economic, social and environmental wellbeing.

Canberra used to taalk in terms of the triple bottom line when Robert Hill was Environment Minister, but that social liberal way of talking has faded into the background in favour of an emphasis on wealth and prosperity.

In Tuesday's Australian Financial Review there was an roundtable with Rudd, Tanner, Gillard and Swan and the AFR commentator crowd---Laura Tingle, Alan Mitchell, David Bassanese, David Crowe, Tom Dusevic, Geoff Winestock and Paul Bailey. It was conducted in Sydney on September 27th, with the discussion moderated by Glen Burge, the AFR Editor. It was an important occassion.

The ALP inner circle was concerned with economic growth, productivity, keeping inflation low and wasteful spending. They called themselves economically literate and rational.

At no point was economics seen as an instrument to achieve happiness or wellbeing. The latter was not seen as a goal, or the purpose or, economic policy.

Public policy is now spoken of, almost exclusively, in the language of productivity, growth in gross domestic product and labour mobility.

Language discloses thought; the ALP work within the hegemonic model of policymaking in Australia remains captive of economic analysis, rather than question it.

Generally, the potential social effects of policies are admitted only insofar as the ruling economic assessment framework is able to accommodate them. They---it was mostly Rudd, Swan and Tanner--- talked in terms of the three P's--- productivity, participation and population. Education is seen as helping develop our national skill base in order that we can increase participation and deliver higher output.Sustainability was never mentioned.

Tanner recently argued here in the SMH that:

We need a better way of analysing and understanding the inherent trade-offs we make, individually and as a society, across these different dimensions of our lives.[economic, environmental and social]

This new thinking involves challenges for both sides of politics. Material wellbeing is at the centre of Labor and Liberal traditions. It has taken decades for environmental sustainability to come to prominence. Social sustainability is the next wave of community need that will dominate political debate.
Relationships should be at the heart of our decision-making. It will take time to develop the tools to enable this
He made no mention of any of this in the AFR Roundtable. Talk about the left hand and the right hand.

Next question is, are they ignorant, wilful as in wilfully evil or just drones?

The media seem gobsmacked by the polls - us simple folk know that we live in a connected society - and not just in an economic model.
In the absence of climate leadership it is time for us all to think about the next steps. Not sure what I can do - but I have committed myself and my company to the greenhouse challenge.

How about the public having wisdom about the political process and recognising that a government who has been in power 11 years is too long.

If the Iemma Government had a credible opposition this year they would have been turfed out.

This type of analysis assumes that people are blind to political understanding.

I dont think that Gittins is saying that people are blind to political understanding.He argues that if Labor wins it will owe much of its success to a shift in the public's preferences, with more weight being given to environmental and social concerns.

The implication is that citizens can judge that Howard + Co are not doing much here so they have placed a cross against them.

Gittins does point out although

Howard's latter-day conversion to [climate change] has led him to propose solutions not all that far from Labor's, the pollsters tell us this issue is "owned" by Labor in the electorate's mind...Again, Howard's last-minute restoration of a safety net has drawn much of Work Choices' sting and significantly reduced the difference between the two sides. But I doubt if that message has got through to the electorate.

I think that people are seeking ways of integrating economic, environmental and social concerns when deciding policy in their everday lives ---as Mike points out.