Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A New Citizenship: The 2009 Reith Lectures

I would be lying if I said that I did not think a lot about the moral issues of our everyday lives. Accuse me, if you will, of being intellectual, but my parents encouraged me to develop that muscle inside my skull. Society generally likes us to show that we have made good use of educational opportunities, so accuse me again for being a follower of what I would call 'right thinking'.

Economics has become my chosen field. Those who know me from a long time know that I did a lot to not become an economist, but each time, something propelled me toward that discipline. So much so that I ended up working in a few of its most prestigious halls. Now that I no longer work in such rarefied air, my brain is so shaped that I cannot but think in a certain way.

Economics is about choice. But economics in not value neutral, so 'acceptable' choices reflect our values. The debate about social choice is always going on. It is very difficult to have these discussions in a calm atmosphere if you are a political partisan; your political bias affects how you see choices. This is no big secret, but often gets forgotten when people look at policies and try to assess their outcomes. Even what some would like to claim as absolutes get caught up somehow once we have to make choices. Look at health care. One would imagine that everyone would agree that having 'good' health care is a good thing. But then we get into problems. What does 'good' mean? How do we get to 'good'? If we need to finance 'good' from taxes will everyone be happy to do that? If we need to finance good using private donations will everyone be happy? And so on.

I have not been able to express my own ideas on certain socio-economic and political economy problems as well as does Professor Michael Sandel, of the Harvard School of Government, in this year's Reith Lectures (see link). His series, 'A New Citizenship', has Professor Michael Sandel delivering four lectures about the prospects of a new politics of the common good.

His broad topic of a new citizenship, looks at how citizens (as individuals and corporations) should rethink how they interact with what we call government. It touches on some big issues including whether government and its expertise should be exercised without going through certain democratic processes. I wont try to summarise all the arguments but suggest you listen to the four lectures. To some it will sound like socialism in new garb, and given views on that stance he may not get a good hearing.

One set of topics that is close to my heart is in the lecture on 'A New Politics of the Common Good', which goes into one of the thorny issues about what governments should do, especially the role of 'correcting market failures'. It digs into cost-benefit analyses, an area of economics that can justify almost any decision if the desired numbers are plugged in and the desired assumptions are made. You can easily find that smoking in public is as equally 'good' as it is 'bad'.

Professor Sandel has an interesting set of arguments about markets mimicking governance, and takes to task those who go with assumptions that rely on taking social preferences as given.

Effective politics is really in the doing. What 'great' politicians do is corral the feelings or emotions of the people--that swings both ways of course and history shows us that this can produce 'evil' as well as 'good' outcomes. How does that corralling differ from mere populism? I think that is hard to discuss conclusively. Redefining purpose and actions, though often criticised, is part of the craft of politics or social leaders. Good 'politicians' change the meaning of events as they unfold.

But a lot of politicians also lose the moments that arise to make an event give clear direction. At any level that is clearest when the same issues get turned around and around without effective action being taken (take misdemeanours by public sector vehicles and general conduct on the roads in Barbados). In Jamaica, eyes look at what politicians say and do about violent crimes and about economic management. People see through the spinning as clear indications that the politicians do not really care. Why? Well, that involves other issues. Outside of this little region, many people are looking at the Obama administration's handling of the financial crisis, health care, and the US military engagements as issues that have many events that can give clear direction of what President Obama's idea of 'change' really means. In Barbados, immigration will also be 'defining'. In Jamaica, an effective reduction in murders or some major shift in government spending would be the first signs many would expect to see as indicating that something serious is being done about the 'problems'.

We can all have fun watching. We can also have our hopes raised or dashed.

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