Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Sarkozy the right-wing radical leads the way on happiness

It is incredible that it takes a right-wing political leader, President Sarkozy of France, to state the obvious truth that the financial crisis must lead to a radical recalibration of the things that society most values. He asked respected economists Joseph Stiglitz and Armatya Sen to form the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress in order to assess this subject. The Commission recently published its report. The French Government may well now use this as the basis for a new way of measuring France's social progress. Wouldn't it be wonderful to hear a single mainstream British politician utter these words:

"A great revolution is waiting for us. For years, people said that finance was a formidable creator of wealth, only to discover one day that it accumulated so many risks that the world almost plunged into chaos...The crisis doesn't only make us free to imagine other models, another future, another world. It obliges us to do so."

And yet it falls to a French right-winger to point an accusing finger at the elephant in the room. The feeling that most people have of the profound injustice at play in a world where the greedy elite which caused such an economic calamity should be bailed out by governments using the future tax payments of the very people whose jobs, homes and wider economic well-being they so endangered or in many cases, damaged. It is a con trick of the highest order, and if you think these words are too harsh, consider the fact that now, any notion of moral hazard for our bankers is a thing of the past. They know that they are too big to fail with the same certainty that almost every other industry knows it is too powerless to warrant Government bailouts.

The eulogies for Lehman Brothers and the scorn poured on the US authorities for having the temerity to let such a behemoth fail is revealing in the same way that shrill outbursts that greeted Lord Turner when he questioned the social utility of some financial institutions and mentioned a Tobin tax. It reveals that the powerful do not like it when their paradigm is questioned, especially by those they consider 'their own'.

With recovery thankfully on the horizon, it would seem that the most strident defenders of the pre-2007 paradigm may well have survived a crisis largely of their own making which very nearly brought most of the large economies of the world to their knees. Yet there is a chink of light for people such as me who do not wish to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, but who think that given that the crisis we have just endured was largely caused by the greed not just of bankers but of us all. The recent crisis happened in an age where mass consumerism seemed to be in the ascendency; an age when people could become millionaires merely by buying and letting out properties while so many struggled to gain a foothold in the housing market; an age where increasingly parents feel the need for two incomes in order to merely survive, thereby neglecting their responsibilities as parents, or as members of the wider community for whom they could perhaps carry out voluntary work were they to have more time and energy; in short, a time when much was right, but much was also out of balance. This must surely lead us at least to have a debate about the kind of society we wish to live in and how to achieve it.

President Sarkozy, the right-winger, leads the way. If only those on the left here in Britain would have the guts and the philosophical wisdom to follow his lead and engage in a long-awaited debate with the ordinary people of this country about the kind of society we wish to live in. Only then can we set about creating it, and some new tools of economic analysis, which factor in our happiness and well-being, will surely help us in this crucial endeavour.

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