There is something that is quite corrosive in our public life. It is our reaction to new ideas.
If we were societies facing few challenges, completely at ease with ourselves, in a state of domestic and international tranquillity then this might be explicable. But given the scale of political, social, economic and environmental challenges, now more than ever we need access to creativity. Sometimes this creativity will seem crazy and it may even, on an occasion, risk serious harm. But we have to find a way of allowing creativity into our democratic processes – we don’t even know all the possible answers as things stand.
It is in this context that two developments are particularly eye-catching- one of international significance and one that is more parochial. Yesterday, Syriza won the Greek election. The received wisdom is that this will be a complete disaster. And it could be. However, what is clear is that the EU (or Troika’s) Greek bailout put in place a debt maintenance plan but failed to establish an economic recovery plan. Consequently, you have a deflating economy with an enormous debt. You don’t need much by way of mathematical nous to see this as unsustainable.
This year the Greek Government is likely to be in primary surplus. Much has been to done to meet bailout conditions. However, this is unlikely to return Greece to the strong economic trajectory it would need to ensure debt sustainability. Therefore, a new plan is needed.
Whether Syriza’s combination of debt restructuring, linking repayments to growth, some public-led economic investment, reduction of tax evasion and corruption, and greater social protections is the right plan – or even a plan the rest of the EU could accommodate – remains to be seen.
However, it is not something to be dismissed out of hand. A reformed Greece back on the road the economic recovery is vastly preferable to a defaulting Greece, potentially tearing up the Eurozone. You would have thought. So this crazy left-wing party might help to ensure that a realistic economic plan for Greece is not put in place.
Equally, it might fall apart as pragmatism becomes impossible within its own movement and the Greek people begin to turn on it as quickly as it was embraced. We don’t know. The point though is that we need access to new ways of thinking. That requires political creativity.
There are new voices and forces in our domestic politics too. Yesterday, the leader of the insurgent(-ish) Green Party, Natalie Bennett, appeared on the Sunday politics. The Greens support a Citizen’s Income. Let’s be honest, she did a pretty poor job of explaining the policy, especially how it would be financed. Actually, it’s relatively easily financed and wouldn’t necessarily cost more than the current system. The major challenges are two-fold: the distributional consequences (some of the losers compared with the current system are exactly those who you don’t want to be losers) and moral-political (we just can’t quite get our heads around a tax-benefit system that works in such a radically different way). A well-designed citizen’s income policy would create greater work incentives and would provide a far more stable foundation for people’s lives than the current highly complex system.
The simple fact is that people now live exceptionally complex and, in many cases, highly erratic lives. I would highly recommend Good times, Bad times by John Hills if you would like to understand this. We have evolved a highly complex welfare system to cope with this. It is bureaucratic, creates all sorts of perverse effects, fails to really lift people into a more secure situation, and, let’s be frank, is increasingly punitive and downright cruel. The welfare state is intruding into people’s lives in ways that we would be marching down Whitehall if it were the police or the secret services.
The work we are currently doing on basic income at the RSA is designed to use existing resources in a way that turns the welfare state into a foundation for people to create better lives rather than locking them into a highly unstable life-cycle. The disincentives to work of a well-designed basic income are at least half those of a negative income tax with a steep taper as the, to be introduced, Universal Credit will be. Yet, the idea was just waved away in reaction to the Bennett interview as the ramblings of fringe sect. The interview was poor but so was the reaction. And it says something about our ability to cope with creativity in politics.
There is something qualitatively different to new ideas that try to find better solutions to problems compared with some of the politics that has emerged in recent years. Policies such as ‘close down borders’ are not creative ideas. They are very old-fashioned political choices. It is new ideas applied to the problems of our time that are important – there are also many ‘ideas’ that involve running away from our problems and they should be called out as such.
Ultimately, the ideas of Syriza and its competence may mean it implodes. The basic income may prove to be a reform that is just too difficult to grasp or may involve choices and compromises we don’t want to make. But let’s arrive at those conclusions having given creative thinking a go. When we close down options, let’s do it on the basis of having given them proper consideration and analysis. Nor should we chase novelty for its own sake. Instead, we have be open, discursive and analytical. Then we might identify creative solutions to a very trying situation. Crazy-seeming ideas can sometimes become elegant solutions.
Anthony Painter and Adam Lent are currently looking at basic income as one aspect of a redefined citizen-state relationship. If you have ideas and analysis to contribute please don’t hesitate to email anthony.painter AT rsa.org.uk.