One of my pet peeves is a particular brand of wooly-political thinking whereby individuals denounce the ‘commodification’ of things that, according to them, shouldn’t be commodified. It’s usually things like health care and/or education which said individuals wrap in soppy, emotional rhetoric and reams upon reams of abstract concepts because those things are far too important to be treated like mere commodities.
It may very well be the case that health and education are so much more than commodities – in fact, I’m pretty sure they are – but that doesn’t change the fact that it requires huge amounts of commodities to be mobilised in order to provide health care and education. We don’t pay doctors, nurses or teachers in the warmth of human kindness; we pay them in cold, hard cash. Whilst many doctors are motivated by more than just their earning potential after graduation – it is nonsense to suggest that there is no mercenary consideration. The fact that being a doctor is more-often-than-not a highly paid job must make the prospect of, at least, seven years of study considerably more palatable. In a similar vein, medical equipment doesn’t grow on trees and a childhood’s worth of school books doesn’t magically appear once you declare education a sacred, profound and noble art.
My problem with this type of thinking is that whilst it does motivate various parties to action, it can just as easily justify action that doesn’t bring us health care and/or education that is higher quality, more accessible and more abundant. It can also justify action that is unhelpful and downright harmful. If health care is a human right then by slapping that pack of cigarettes out of someone’s hand – aren’t you merely upholding their human rights? I know this ties in to negative rights versus positive right but what I’m talking about here is a distraction from finding the solutions to the problems of public policy making. How best do we treat health care and education in a way that mobilises the resources we need to provide them? That may mean treating them like commodities.
Human beings need food before they need health care and education but we are more than happy to treat food like a commodity. A healthy, nutritious diet means so much more to an individual than just food – but treating food as a commodity, despite the distorted state of the global agriculture market, has meant huge and continuous increases in the abundance, quality and affordability of food.
If treating things like health care and education more like commodities means they become more abundant, more affordable and they increase in quality – wouldn’t it be worth dropping the soppy rhetoric?
I was recently asked to list my three least favourite government policies. As you can imagine, this was a tall order… But I’ve managed to narrow it down.
Governments kill in times of war but it’s never clear that they have reached their aims from an IR perspective. Apart from the the death and destruction there’s the awkward legislation that follows in times of war. Wars are expensive, your taxes rise to pay for them and they don’t come down once the war is over. Your civil liberties get eaten up and you never get them back. There is still legislation in this country which was made in World War One and is not getting repealed anytime soon. There are both selfish and selfless reasons to opposed war. The killing of innocent men, women and children and the fact that 10 years after Iraq they are still groping our b*llocks at the airport – nobody wins.
2. Agricultural Policy
I suppose we should be grateful that we have agricultural markets at all since we have food and people in North Korea don’t. But distortions in the agricultural markets in the form of trade tariffs, subsidies and regulation (although I do appreciate that this is slightly simplifying things) are the reason some people on this planet still don’t have food despite the fact we have the capacity to produce more than enough for everyone.The food system isn’t free/fair and, sadly, the many meaningful efforts to make it more fair (e.g. Fairtrade) simply amount to more distortions.
Agriculture is one of the biggest polluters. Were the markets not so stilted I’ve no doubt that people in cities would be eating a greater variety of fresher produce grown in carbon neutral, pollution-free, super-efficient vertical farms by now. More importantly those who previously had no seat at the table would be able to eat at last.
3. School Policy
School choice, or lack thereof, is one of my biggest pet peeves. Not only that but schools in England are oversubscribed and over subscription is a problem you can solve very easily. Privatise all schools. Give parents vouchers so they can send their children to the school of their choosing. Government vouchers give poor people what rich people have – choice. New schools rise to meet demand and all schools compete for higher quality and better value for your voucher. You would slowly see greater plurality and innovation in the education sector.
So there you have it. What I consider to be the worst of it!
I hate ‘neutral’ news outlets and yet they don’t exist.
That’s because every news outlet has a bias. That is inevitable. The only news outlet that comes even near to having no bias is Drudge Report and let’s face, it’s not a text heavy site…
News doesn’t have to be neutral any longer. We don’t all get our news from the same 2 or 3 radio or TV channels anymore. We pick and choose from hundreds of thousands of web, tv and radio outlets and gravitate to the ones that fit our innate bias and preferences. We like having our own prejudices reaffirmed.
Because of this, I would argue that it would be better if news outlets just stopped trying to be neutral. BBC News has a bias and because they think they’re not biased, they’ve ended up with a bias they’re not aware of. This vexes me so much more than outlets who have biases I don’t agree with.
The Daily Mail and Fox News are unabashed about having a bias and they do what they do very well. They are incredibly good at engaging the people who consume news from them. These individuals return again and again to their outlets. It appears to me that the reason Fox News became as aggressive as it is was because other news outlets were so adamantly calling themselves neutral when they weren’t. Most journalists in the US are liberal arts graduates, have a moderate liberal bias and, until the inception of Fox News, lacked seemingly all introspective analysis.
I think the reason deliberately biased outlets work so well is because admitting your bias gives you freedom. If I were told to write a neutral article on China’s ‘one child’ policy it would be a lot harder to write than if I wrote an article on China’s ‘one child’ policy with my own bias (I think it’s abhorrent, if you were wondering…).
We’ve got to stop thinking of bias as a dirty word. Bias used to be synonymous with poor quality but I don’t know if that has ever truly been the case. Jezebel has a strong liberal (US) bias but it’s content is usually incredibly novel and high quality. BBC News has a liberal bias and it’s decline is painful to watch… Channel 4 News is similarly biased and is increasingly impressing me with it’s depth and quality. The Times and The Sun are both owned by the same owner, both hold a right-leaning bias but are of noticeably different qualities.
If you’re not neutral don’t pretend to be. Forgo the pretense and strive for quality.
What do rich people have that poor people don’t? I imagine that ‘money’ is the first answer that comes into your mind. Well, yes, but let’s break this down. What does money give you? It gives you choice.
Farmers began co-ops in the mid-19th century because they were being sold expensive, rotten food by private food sellers. Because co-ops were providing better produce at cheaper rates, other private food sellers had to up their game. Farming co-ops weren’t non-profits; they were a different type of capitalism. The free-market doesn’t just mean the consumer wins because they have a choice of products to buy; they have a choice between outlets which are structured differently. Different forms of capitalism competed to create better capitalism.
At the time of the financial crisis, I remember seeing very little analysis about how the Co-operative Bank fared in comparison to it’s shareholder counterparts (although, to be fair, the Co-operative bank is not a true democratic co-operative). If we had a greater mix of co-operative banks and shareheld banks, with co-operative banks being perceived as being more ethical – the theory goes that a greater amount of customers choosing to bank cooperatively would signal to the shareheld banks that they wanted more ethical banking. The shareheld banks would have to get more ethical in order to compete. On the other hand, if a greater number of consumers perceived the shareheld banks as more efficient/cheaper, the co-operative banks would have to get more efficient/cheaper in order to compete. Thus, the pendulum would swing, increasing the efficiency, cheapness and the ethical credentials of banking.
What I’m arguing for is a greater plurality in the structures we interact with. In order for this to come about the State must recede. The main argument against greater marketisation of public services is the perception of capitalism as being unethical. A greater plurality could mean adding a dimension to capitalism that means organisations/outlets have to compete with each other on grounds of their ethical credentials as well as with prices, quality and providing shareholders with dividends. Most people don’t think about this dynamic between capitalist organisations when they think of the free-market.
The sector I fear for most is education. Classrooms don’t look that much different than they did in the 1930s. Even though almost every other area of our lives have changed our schools still look the same. Children don’t all learn the same, but we teach them all the same. Education does not seem to be moving with the times at all. I know no one who makes their living as a fine artist. I know a great deal who make their living using Adobe Creative Suite. Yet, I was taught fine art in school and I was not taught how to work any part of the Adobe Creative Suite.
Ultimately this rot is due to a lack of plurality ergo a lack of incentive to change and innovate. In my ideal world there would be three different types of school structure – schools run by private shareholder capitalist companies, schools run by cooperatively owned capitalist companies and schools run by private charities/non-profits. There would also be three types of funding – private funds, charitable donation and government vouchers. Vouchers give poor people what rich have. Choice. Were this the case education would look different in a very short period of time and unrecognisable after a long period.
This lack of choice is precisely why social democracy sucks. It sucks flexibility and plurality out of the system. The NHS, state schools and other public services are as good as they’re going to get. If that’s good enough for you, fine. But it may not be good enough in 50 years time. Changes in structure and competition change the game for the better, both ethically and efficiently. Embrace it.