Towards a human welfare economy - RSA

Blog: Towards a human welfare economy

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  • Creative economy

Tomorrow is my eighth annual RSA chief executive’s lecture. I have suffered my usual agonies; repeatedly writing drafts, thinking they are good, realising they are not, despairing, panicking and starting again. I guess I must be reasonably satisfied of where this one has ended up or else I wouldn’t be posting about it and asking you to tune in tomorrow evening at six when the speech will be live here at John Adam Street and on the RSA website.

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After some opening comments about why the economic debate often feels narrow and technocratic (‘I feel I should apologise for not being an economist, which is telling because I’ve never heard anyone with views about the future of society apologise for not being a sociologist….’) the speech is about creating a resilient human welfare economy. By sheer coincidence it is taking place the day before George Osborne’s summer budget.

My argument is constructed around the idea of five design principles which could form the basis both for a broader and more open economic debate and for a more comprehensive and long term economic strategy.

The five design principles are:

1. Clarity of mission and purpose: What are the human goals we want our economic strategy management to help achieve?
2. The efficient and sustainable use of economic assets: We have many debates about economic assets – for example, about immigration, fossil fuels, culture and education. But without some sense of our starting point it is hard to assess the overall success of our economic strategy and the degree to which our actions are depleting or enhancing our asset base.
3. Effective and strategic use of key policy instruments: Are our key economic policy instruments, for example tax, used in line with our overall economic mission?
4. Empowering individuals: How can economic policy enable more people to be creative economic actors?
5. Democratic and participative economic institutions: At the level of the firm and Government the UK’s is unique among advanced democracies in denying almost any systematic route for the voice of employees and the wider citizenry.

By going back to first principles I argue that a number of policies currently deemed too radical and difficult for serious consideration by the political mainstream might get taken more seriously. These include a universal citizen income, a comprehensive land tax, a new form of individual learning accounts and the effective abolition of a fixed age of retirement.

I also propose that the RSA establish a Citizens’ Economic Council, an independent but representative group that would over two years openly discuss the aims and design principles for a resilient human welfare economy, and some of the ideas that such an approach might favour. The purpose being to try to get going before the next General Election a wider and richer debate about our hopes and plans for the economy in 2030.

Near the conclusion the current draft says: 

‘The list of design principles is neither perfect nor exhaustive. My aim is to provide a framework for the RSA’s economic research not to predetermine its outcome.  Nevertheless, principles such as these can enable us to take a broader, more ambitious, view of economic debate and to make it easier for non-economists (like me) to join in that debate.'

If you think I might be right please retweet this post, watch the lecture and join the debate.


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  • I like most of what this says (and enjoyed the soundbites on This Morning, as far as we were allowed to hear them).  However, what worries me more than anything is that it is too biased towards economics.  I think I would be happier if it started without mentioning the economics, so that we could get back to real values, i.e. non monetised ones.  We need something like Smith's "moral sentiments" to realign us as human beings and thinkers.  In other words, we need to look at the whole paradigm.

    After that we would be in a position to judge from which directions contributions could be made. Here, economic ones might take a leading role - or they might not.

    I think Alistair Sinclair might be saying what I am trying to get across.  There are also people like Edward Dommen also trying to come at it from another angle, although conventional economists will, sadly, probably judge him to be "off the wall".  I am not heartened by listening to the very competently delivered Budget today, because when people deliver speeches with confidence and conviction, however shallow they might really be, a lot of people believe in the speaker.

  • I think I'd prefer another sort of title; 'Toward a Human Strengths Economy' -something that explicitly points to the political, economic, psychological, social issue (at least in my slightly obsessed mind). That is, the deficit (in every sense of the word) nature of our current world/reality & need to re-align to a strength/asset/connection focus if we are going to address increasing dislocation/inequality & pretty fundamental 'welfare' issues. Which maybe points to something before 'clarity of mission and purpose' and that's 'Values & Beliefs'. Or else maybe there's a danger of just replicating existing dysfuctional structures under another name?

  • Much tt like here but would like to see something abt sustainability & protection of the natural world/biodiversity - too important to be left for the list of 'human goals'.

  • Interesting framework Matthew. Can you say any more about your evidence base for the unpacking of design principle 5? I'm assuming you're asserting this is a bad thing, but it is the most ambiguously written of the five principles.

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