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I agree about the two pronged attack. But I might be a bit more radical about what the liberal message should be.

I think if you try to map social justice into traditional economic terms, you're perpetuating the same framing that the right uses. You're also trying to wrest control of it from them. That's a very difficult thing to do.

If you want to get really ambitious about this, a new mythology has to replace economic mythology completely, all the way down.

Economics is only tangentially reality-based. It's a measure of belief in an abstraction called 'value' which is entirely subjective, and sometimes looks very much like it might as well be faith-based.

The problem of how to distribute resources and manage and develop assets isn't unreal at all. But the way it's done today measures the wrong things for the wrong reasons, and then draws the wrong conclusions.

Reality-based economics would have to balance real resource shortages with an explicit concern for long-term husbandry and world-wide humanitarian welfare.

This is the polar opposite of today's economics, which is based on implicit assumptions that benefit the oligarchs and monopolies at the expense of everyone else. It's not just about numbers, it's about using a discourse to evangelise a value system. By agreeing with the discourse people are herded towards the implied values.

So a replacement has to do the same, but for benign reasons. It has to be built on different implicit values that can be reduced to simple and manageable concepts that are equivalent to today's 'growth' and 'unemployment' and 'productivity.' The reason these are memorable is because they can be propagated as sound-bites that appear simple and self-evidently important.

In fact they're complicated, and not self-evident or easy to understand at all. But that isn't how they appear. And that's why a slogan isn't going to work as a replacement for them. Because you can always argue with a slogan. But - so we're told over and over - you can't argue with 'economic realities.'

So the challenge becomes - can progressive aims be reduced to metrics labelled with simple names for essential concepts like environmental health, sustainability, etc, that have the same sound-bite quality?

Once you have simple definitions of your goals, and simple labels for them, you can start creating lobbies,  pressure groups and even parties that will push the relevant metrics in healthy directions. But the concepts have to be very clear and very simple. Something like 'social justice' is still too abstract, I think. So promoting 'social justice' will never have more than a minority influence, even for progressives. Because unless it can be folded into a reworked economics it's unlikely to get to the top of the political agenda.

As an example of how it's gone wrong in the past, take a word like 'sustainability'. This has a very simple, concrete meaning - if something is unsustainable, you will run out of it.

That shouldn't be a complicated idea. But consider what 'sustainable' means to most people. I'd guess the reality-based foundation won't be there for them. What they're more likely to associate it with is rather fringey and eccentric hippyish romanticism about self-sufficiency. A bit wacky, and hard to take seriously.

It's that disconnect with reality that has to be bridged. What we have now is a system that pretends to define reality while mostly being based on hand-waving and woo-woo, with a side order of bullying and oppression.

A replacement has to seem just as real and just as inevitable, with the difference that it really will be real and inevitable. E.g. if you cause global warming, there will be huge economic costs. If you don't use water intelligently, there will be huge economic costs. If you start wars, there will be huge economic costs. And so on.

I think calling it 'reality-based economics' is a start. After that it gets more complicated - but as a goal to aim for, I think it's worth considering as a beginning.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Apr 13th, 2006 at 06:08:14 PM EST
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