Syndicate content

social welfare

The Great Gatsby government discourse — carelessness and its consequences

Brian Levy's picture

This is a three-part series from Brian Levy on the manner in which the media, activists and politicians talk about the role of government. This post focuses on the importance of engaged democratic debate and the rhetorical traps that can derail political discussions.

morning dressI’ve been thinking a lot in recent months about how we talk about government. So, spurred on in part by the truly appalling tone of discourse in the Republican Party’s nomination contest, I’ve decided to write a few United States-centric blog posts on the subject (though I’ll stay away entirely from chauvinistic slurs, or comments about ‘walls’ or ‘roads to serfdom’).

Somehow, in the area of governance, our usual ways of measuring (and honoring) human endeavor don’t seem to  apply. Ordinarily, working and playing in teams teaches us how to master the challenges of  co-operative, collective achievement — which can be way, way harder than striving alone. Governing is a quintessentially collective endeavor, especially in democracies.  Yet all too often  the discourse (and not only by nameless plutocrat presidential candidates…..)  is resonant  of   F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby:

“They were careless people…..  They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

In a series of complementary blog posts — on Washington’s Metro on Obamacare;, and on South Africa’s public sector — I explore some consequences of our carelessness in the way we speak about the public sector.  Here I focus on the underlying logic of the conversation. A good place to begin is with the analysis of institutions.

The great institutional economist, Douglass North, defined institutions formally as “humanly devised constraints which govern human interaction”. (‘Rules of the game’ is his classic, informal definition.) Another Nobel-prize-winning economist, Oliver Williamson, built on North’s definition. “Governance”, Williamson suggested, “is an effort to craft order, thereby to mitigate conflict and realize mutual gains”.   Crafting governance arrangements for the public sector is hard – much harder, Williamson emphasizes, than governing a private firm. Yet, somehow, seduced by high-sounding bromides, we  trivialize the challenge. We gloss over the complexities, imply that what is extraordinarily difficult should be straightforward, and end up fueling disappointment and despair. The result is the pervasive distrust of government evident across much of the industrialized world.

The political economy of welfare schemes

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture
Medical checkups for children in India.Social welfare schemes the world over are going through interesting times. Egged on by fiscal management targets, welfare cuts are routinely passed off as “reforms”. Subsequently, there is usually pressure on governments to target welfare to the most deserving. Determining who the deserving beneficiaries are and the appropriate value of these transfers is critical.
In a recent edition of the Pathways’ Perspectives, social policy specialist Stephen Kidd bats for universal social security schemes. His central argument is built around the political economy of targeting, suggesting that “inclusive social security schemes build political alliances between those living in poverty, those on middle incomes and the affluent”. Governments that are interested in scaling up social security schemes prefer universal coverage. The argument goes that this way, they build a wide coalition of interests that support their scheme and hope that this support translates into electoral endorsement. On the other hand, governments that are interested in scaling back social security schemes do so by first withdrawing from universal schemes and then introduce an element of targeting. Soon, those that do not benefit from the scheme are more likely to see it as wasteful public spending and therefore, support a move to cut back.

GDP is Not Destiny

Roxanne Bauer's picture
In a 1968 speech, Robert Kennedy recognized gross national product “measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon agreeed in 2012 suggesting, “We need to move beyond gross domestic product as our main measure of progress, and fashion a sustainable development index that puts people first,” and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said in 2008, “GDP tells you nothing about sustainability.”

Even Simon Kuznets, who first coined the term GDP acknowledged in his original report to the US Congress 1934 that, "The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income."

Taking up the call for a better, more wholesome way to measure progress, the Social Progress Index, offers a framework for measuring the multiple aspects of social progress based on three dimensions: basic needs for survival, foundations of wellbeing, and opportunity.  It does not measure how much money is spent on policies or services that support these dimensions, but rather the experiences of citizens.

Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Index, gives the following Ted Talk to explain how the index measures the welfare of societies and what its policy implications are. He reveals a dramatic reordering of nations according to social progress.
What the Social Progress Index can reveal about your country