Category Archives: social justice

Building social capacity – not social capital

Whether it’s the need for social economy, the importance of civil society, the potential benefits of deliberative democracy, the means to address climate change, or the idea of ecological citizenship, we consistently find a common theme at the root of what we are talking about.

That common theme is the need to build social capacity.

You might be familiar with another very widely used term that I could have chosen to use ­– ‘social capital’. Indeed, Barry and I have used this phrase a couple of times, but not extensively. We have largely (if instinctively) avoided the phrase ‘social capital,’ I think, because there are serious problems with it, both in the vocabulary and in the way the concept is understood.

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The rebirth of social democracy

In 2006 Clive Hamilton wrote an obituary on the “Death of social democracy.” His view was that

sustained increases in living standards for the great bulk of working people have so transformed social conditions as to render social democracy redundant as a political ideology. (p.7)

Certainly, (nominal) social democrats such as Paul Keating, Helen Clark, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schroeder seemed to agree: their ‘Third Way’ economic policies had far more in common with the New Right than the Old Left.

Yet, the darkest hour for (real) social democrats was just before the dawn. By mid-2008, a financial crisis generally regarded as the worst since the 1930s had gripped the global economy. Intervention became essential, at least for the welfare of corporations, as taxpayers fronted with enormous bailouts for businesses (banks in particular) which were “too big to fail”. The economies of smaller European nations, which had wholehearted embraced the call to “enrichissez vous” at the expense of all else, were prostrate. The miracle of neoliberalism was shown to be nothing more than a brief mirage.

According to Tony Judt, the best possible response to this economic meltdown is the rebirth of social democracy.

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What will National’s tax changes mean?

UPDATED Saturday 15 May 2010: Looks like I may have to eat my hat on this one, if this report suggesting compensatory income-tax cuts across the board “so no-one is worse off” is correct. I shall take it as a valuable lesson in the perils of speculative punditry!

ORIGINAL POST FOLLOWS

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The new republicanism, part 1

The meaning of republicanism is often reduced to an argument over the means of acquiring heads of state: aristocratic inheritance or election? Conversations and debates in Britain and nations with historic ties to Britain via empire and mass migration, such as New Zealand and Australia, are typical in this regard. In the public arena, republicanism is anti-monarchism and little else.

In fact, republicanism is very much more than this one-dimensional debate might suggest. Drawn from a tradition going back to classical Greece and Rome, the foundational notions of republicanism – public politics and self-government – underpinned the struggle against feudalism and absolute monarchy, and were brought to the fore in the works of Rousseau, Paine and many others.

A recent resurgence of interest in these ideals has become known as neo-republicanism. An article by Richard Dagger (2006) provides a useful summary of four important ingredients of a 21st century republic: political equality, freedom as self-government, deliberative politics, and civic virtue.

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Evidence based politics

The Spirit Level may be the most significant book I have read in 10 years.

Many people, myself included, hold to the ideological belief that social justice is a prerequisite for a truly democratic, peaceful, sustainable society. What Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provide in The Spirit Level is the evidence to back up the belief.

When we look at the wealthiest nations, despite the inordinate wealth we find many health and social problems. While it is clear that the prevalence of these problems is hugely variable from one country to another, the evidence shows quite clearly that it is not the level of income in the different countries that is correlated with health and social problems.

Wilkinson and Pickett show – with detailed consideration of a mass of data covering 23 wealthy countries, ie those with a national income above US$25,000 per capita – that the prevalence of health and social problems is greater in countries with higher income inequality.

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Getting climate policy back on course with the Kaya Identity

Here’s another take on the need for a new approach to combat climate change. It is based on the Kaya Identity – not, as you might think, a novel by Robert Ludlum, but a simple equation that gives some very useful insights into the factors that determine levels of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Basing their alternative ideas on this equation, Gwyn Prins and 12 colleagues explain How to get climate policy back on course (pdf here). It needs to be put back on track because, as Prins and colleagues put it, the existing policy approach (based on carbon markets) is an “abject failure” (p.4).

The Kaya Identity suggests that there are four – and only four – macro-scale policy levers that are available for making emissions reductions and each of the four levers suggests a particular approach to policy:

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What is the true meaning of climate change?

At national and international levels climate change policy is in a state of almost total paralysis. There is much talk, but very little substantive action.

In part, this paralysis stems from the different ways in which society makes sense of the phenomenon of climate change. Naming and characterising these competing frames is enormously useful in understanding – and perhaps doing something about – the policy paralysis.

In a New Scientist opinion piece (here), Mike Hulme gives a brilliant, concise sketch of four key “myths” about climate change. But these are not myths in the sense of falsehoods, says Hulme – they are myths in the sense of stories that embody deeply held beliefs about the world:

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