The eighteenth Democracy Café was held on Saturday 9 February at the Playhouse and two topics were discussed
A well attended meeting voted for two topics from a number of suggestions. The first was: Does Economics need a rethink? The idea for this topic came from the book Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. This is the latest in a number of books which are challenging the established thinking about economics which has assumed for a long that people always take rational decisions and act to maximise their utility. The failure of the profession to foretell the financial crash has also been a factor.
Economics does not talk about the big issues which are affecting the world now – things like the environment, justice and social issues. Growth has always been unquestioningly accepted as a ‘good thing’ and national economies are judged on their growth rates. But how sustainable is this desire for continued growth? Can the resources of the world go on enabling countries to continue growing, especially as more and more countries join in the game? Growth is accepted as the be all and end all of economic policy. Things of value – often unmeasurable – get forgotten.
The question was asked: what do we attach value to? Water, nature, open space – these things cannot be measured or valued in any meaningful way but nevertheless, are important parts of our wellbeing. It was pointed out that in these areas, the UK was doing badly in comparison with other developed nations.
It was pointed out however, that companies are obliged under the Companies Acts, to maximise returns to shareholders. It was also pointed out that these returns were important for pension funds and the like upon which very many people depended for their incomes. Matters like the environment and nature were classed as ‘externalities’ as far as company boards were concerned. It was little wonder therefor that such matters were lower down in their considerations. In the UK, a belief in free markets meant there was a general reluctance to impose too many controls on the activities of companies, but this reluctance was not universal elsewhere.
There was a brief discussion on the notion of power in this connection. Increasingly, we are seeing major corporations organising their affairs so as to minimise or in some cases, eliminate, their tax liabilities. An industry of major City accountancy firms and banks are engaged in ever more creative ways to avoid paying tax. The corporations and the individuals who run them have amassed wealth beyond the imagination of Croesus. They have sometimes given some of this wealth to a charitable cause reaping publicity in the process. But would it not be better to pay tax in the first place?
Back to our Doughnut Economics and the country which is best matching social thresholds with biophysical boundaries transgressed is – perhaps surprisisngly – Vietnam as the graph on this link demonstrates.
The Spirit Level¹ was mentioned – a book by Wilkinson and Pickett – which exhaustively looked at the issue of inequality. This arose in relation to a discussion on capital v. income. Owners of capital have done well in recent years whereas those on incomes less so. This was one of the arguments in Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century². [Although not mentioned or discussed, it was the subject of Guy Standing’s recent book The Corruption of Capitalism (Biteback Publishing, 2016). In it, he argues that global capitalism is rigged in favour of the rentiers to the detriment of the rest of us and especially the precariat]. Inequality is now a major problem in many countries around the world as well as the UK. In short, the wealthy are getting ever wealthier and poor, poorer. The gap is getting wider and wider. It was not that capitalism was not working but that the fruits were unevenly divided.
Wellbeing was mentioned and people’s desire to live longer and better a motivating factor. In this connection, sufficient income to give happiness is discussed in Wilkinson and Pickett’s latest book the Inner Level³. There comes a point they argue where life satisfaction does not increase despite increasing wealth (chapter 8 ibid).
Neoliberalism was briefly discussed and whether this ideology is now dying is a moot point. There are still many politicians and others who feel that ‘private good, public bad’ is still a sound philosophy. The influence of disaster in the political sphere was mentioned in connection with Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine (4). Briefly, she argued that disasters – whether manmade or natural – can be an opportunity for radical change and reengineering when people are suffering from shock.
Other points made during the discussion included the John Lewis partnership model for running business and the full employment model which seems to be operational in Vietnam someone noted. There, there seemed to be many cleaners at work in public places but whether it would work in the UK is to be doubted.
An interesting discussion which recognised that economics and politics are closely aligned. People were not automata acting unthinkingly to price signals, but individuals who reacted in many different ways to economic and social change. Pursuing growth cannot continue indefinitely we agreed and there was clearly a need for new thinking as far as managing our financial and fiscal affairs is concerned.
The second half topic concerned how best to manage major projects in the public arena. This was prompted by the arguments surrounding the proposed new Library in Salisbury which has prompted a lot of protest and anger. How can such developments be handled to involve people in the process?
The immediate response was the need to involve people at an early stage in the process. If most of the thinking had been already done then ‘involvement’ risked just being tokenism. People wanted to know why a development was being done: just announcing a scheme without an explanation of why it was needed and the reason for change is likely to meet objections. The idea for a cultural quarter has been around for quite some time someone said so it was possible the reasoning was lost in the mists of time.
Trowbridge quickly surfaced as it usually does in these types of discussion and their perceived remoteness and WC being out of touch is a sore point. A lack of trust was also evident. Some lamented the loss of Salisbury District Council.
It was suggested however that people naturally disliked change and protest was the default response to new development proposals. Could it be said that any development proposal would not be liked by someone? Reactions were often emotional.
The discussion was relevant because of our attempts to get a deliberative democracy (or citizens’ jury) project underway which would tackle many of the issues we discussed. In simple terms the idea is to assemble a random group of people to work on an issue over a period of several days for which they would be paid.
Further points included the regrettable loss of interest in matters of a collective nature. So an individual may say ‘I don’t use the library [therefore I don’t care]’. Interest was only apparent if whatever the project was concerned them at the personal level. Otherwise they were indifferent. Another interesting point was the need for local authorities to work more horizontally. This concerned the wide variety of interests in a project like the library but if it was left to a particular department to manage, then there was a risk of ‘silo thinking’ taking place.
If you are new to this site, the Democracy café meets once a month on the second Saturday at 10am for 2 hours, currently upstairs in Salisbury Playhouse. It is free but contributions are welcome. People are free to suggest a topic for discussion and we then vote to decide which one or two to debate. The next meeting is on 9 March.
- Penguin Books, 2010
- Belknap Press, 2103
- Allen Lane, 2018
- Penguin, Allen Lane, 2007