Building Back Better: Set Your Goals

In response to Andrea Grainger's earlier series on the environment and economy, Chris Smith discusses Doughnut economics and an alternative economic programme.

Andrea Grainger’s three excellent blogs have covered many of the themes that have occurred to me having just finished Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth which I suggest can provide some guidance on how Labour can advance an alternative economic program. Grainger’s third post on the happiness index raises the issues with GDP being such a poor measure of human development and satisfaction that its own creator denounced it. Rawoth’s book makes the same observation in its first chapter using the analogy of economic growth being a cuckoo in the nest of other birds who find themselves evicted from their own nest by the invader. Her assertion being chasing economic growth for its own sake has led economics as a discipline to loose sight of what the purpose of growth is. Just as Grainger illustrates excellently through the happiness index Ranworth proposes an alternative doughnut model for assessing economic activity where economic activity is assessed by its ability to meet human need whilst not in the process destroying the planetary systems required to support humanity in this. Falling within these two standards being the doughnut centre.  I wont go into any further detail here and spoil what is an excellent read.

A significant yet more subtle distortion of chasing growth is how it controls the pubic narrative around politics and twists peoples reasoning to go against their own interests. The current CChris Smith teaches politics and history in Norwich in Norfolk largest comprehensive school where he is also Labour party city council candidate and divisional executive member of  the National Education Union.ovid-19 crisis is case in point with a Conservative government now preparing the narrative to be a choice between economic or physical health. The notion that this is a fake choice is deliberately ignored along with the thought that a drop in GDP because of a planned shut down is not the same as the life churning experience of a drop in GDP caused by a recession caused by market forces.

Tony Benn used ask how different would the world be if instead of at the end of every news bulletin being given the results of the days stock and currency markets (which for the sake of brevity let us a agree are fleeting pieces of information) we were given the numbers of how many people across the world died due to preventable causes such as lack of access to clean water or adequate food. Which again for the sake of space let us accept is a far more permanent state of affairs than the results of a day on the financial markets.

The insight as Raworth’s book makes clear is powerful in its simplicity and none the less true for it. How different can the world not just appear but be when we set different goals? Very. The previous weeks of Covid-19 coverage have to an extent proved Benn’s hypothesis with bulletins starting or ending with the numbers of new Covid-19 deaths the entire narrative had shifted so much that even the conservative chancellor pledged that government would do whatever it takes to save businesses and lives. The invisible hand of the free market had nothing to contribute to meeting these goals and no one questioned the necessity of state action which would under other narratives have been condemned as ruinous.

Yet news reports are again starting to lead with reports of how many percentage points of GDP have been lost creating the narrative that all will be lost if economic output falls too far down this one measure. Labour should embrace this challenge and when back in office stop using GDP entirely. In the process of getting into office it should also do its upmost to switch the narrative from it. Japan famously endured a “lost decade” in the 1990s where GDP growth was close to 0% and since has been described as possessing a “stagnant” and “zombie” economy. This completely overlooks how it retains the world’s longest life expectancy, enviably low levels of social ills such as homelessness, crime, drug & alcohol addiction and a lower income disparity than found in Britain. Japan hasn’t achieved this through some natural tendency to do less with more  but through a different set of priorities such as broader definitions of welfare, long term investment over short term gain and  a concern for environmental impacts and sustainability which although far from perfect had begun to be action well before we in Britain began factoring it into official figures.

We don’t even need to look as far afield as Japan for alternatives the city government of Amsterdam announced last year it would be using Ranworth’s doughnut economic model to guide its policy making from now on in a world first . Whilst as Ranworth herself details in 2008 then French President Sarkozy convened a panel of international economic thinkers to assess the measures currently applied to economic and social policy making coming to the conclusion that: “those attempting to guide the economy and society are like pilots trying to steer a course without a reliable compass.”

The right won the 2010 election on the false, but simple line that labour spent us into recession. Labour needs to win the next election by showing that by following a faulty compass the Conservatives led Britain to the position of being the least prepared nation in Europe for a pandemic it would seem. They didn’t do this because they are wicked Tories intent on class war but because they blindly follow the wrong measures with the wrong priorities. Whilst Labour can use a switch of goal to truly lay claim to the centre ground of “building back better.” After Covid-19 no one will want to build back worse, but the true route to victory is heading off any narrative that leads to building back the same.

Chris Smith teaches politics and history in Norwich in Norfolk largest comprehensive school where he is also Labour party city council candidate and divisional executive member of  the National Education Union.

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