British Discussion of the Politics of Wellbeing

Below we have an extended except from “The Road to Happiness” by Derek Draper in The Guardian’s online commentary section. I find it intriguing that the question of social wellbeing has come to the point of being worthy of consideration in the House of Commons. Americans are stereotyped as touchy-feely and navel-gazing, but the Brits have decided to consider the role of policy in individual happiness.

It’s not as if the litany of social ills in the two countries is all that different. England is multicultural, arguably more multicultural than the US. Both countries have high and rising levels of mental health ailments, materialsm, breakdown of traditional family structures, and social isolation. Why is it that the British are bothered about it to a much greater degree than we are?

Perhaps it’s the relentless American individualism. We don’t like to see our problems as the result of larger forces. That would mean our power to effect change is limited. Perhaps we are more addicted to consumption. Calvinism runs deep here. The elect are more successful and have more toys. Anyone who is unhappy with that idea must be a loser, and hence not favored by God. Or maybe it’s easier for us to get Prozac from our HMO than for the Brits to get it from the NHS.

One of the reasons I am in favor of this line of discussion is that it may introduce new perspectives besides that of material outcomes into policy debates. MInd you, I don’t have anything against economists per se, but an economics writer I like (Michael Prowse of the FT? Ross Gittins of the Sydney Morning Herald?) pointed out, Keynes won economists a seat at the policy table. Before the success of his recommendations, they were just another bunch of social scientists, given no more heed by politicians than historians or anthropologists. And too many economists have a tendency to frame issues that have a broad impact on society strictly in terms of their impact on production, not, say on mental health or the stability of family structures or physical health and logevity.

Consider this opening paragraph from a commentary in the Wall Street Journal last week, “‘Competitive Cooperation’,” by Edward Prescott, a Nobel Prize winner:

Of all the thankless jobs that economists set for themselves when it comes to educating people about economics, the notion that society is better off if some industries are allowed to wither, their workers lose their jobs, and investors lose their capital — all in the name of the greater glory of globalization — surely ranks near the top. This is counterintuitive to many people (politicians among them), because they view it the government’s economic responsibility to protect U.S. industry, employment and wealth against the forces of foreign competition. If the government has any economic role at all, surely this must be it.

Its audacity is breathtaking. Here Prescott is, doing a “thankless” job of telling us from on high that “society is better off” if outcomes that are superior from an ECONOMIC perspective are implemented. However, it is beyond his expertise to say what is or isn’t better for society. He is not a sociologist or psychologist or public health professional.

Now it could well turn out that Prescott is still right, that society might indeed be better off if certain industries die, etc., but he is in no position to make that determination without also factoring in the perspectives of other disciplines, which he clearly has not done. But Prescott, like too many of his peers, equates economic good with social good, when the two aren’t always so neatly aligned (see here for one illustration, that greater income inequality shortens lifespsns at all income levels). I suspect that recognition is part of what is stimulating the debate in the UK, and I hope it gains some traction here.

From Draper:

I wanted to organise tomorrow’s discussion on the “Politics of Wellbeing” because I believe that a historic and fundamental shift has begun to take place in Britain’s national psyche. But it is just the beginning, and we should not pretend otherwise. That is why the debate at the House of Commons – and the one taking place here on Cif – are so important. We are in uncharted waters, and we should all be contributing to the development of our new map.

The change taking place is, I think, being driven by the combination of three trends. First, there is a growing awareness of the huge prevalence of mental illness in our society, especially regarding the millions of people suffering from emotional problems like depression and anxiety – 1 in 6 by the latest estimates. Lord Layard has taken this issue to the heart of government policy-making. But we also see it illustrated every day in terms of “celebrities” entering rehab; young girls (and now boys) suffering a plague of anorexia and self-harming; and the relentless rise in prescriptions written for anti-depressants.

Second, there is an explosion of worry about what could loosely be labelled our cultural and ethical values – whether these relate to the way we bring up our children; what we partake in as entertainment; or how we live in such a stimulant-based, materialist way. This anxiety has been dramatically expressed by Oliver James in his recent book Affluenza but it has also been highlighted by the recent UNICEF report; today’s worries about the sexualisation of children; or the growing concern about the effects of children being put into nurseries at too early an age.

The third factor is the rise of a new generation of politicians who are more ready to speak in emotional terms about emotional issues, and face up to the policy implications of this. This is clearly symbolised by the difference in content and style of Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Brown is going to have to bring his undoubted emotional commitment more into his public persona. People want to see politicians addressing these new areas of concern in a convincing and constructive way.

All this, then has combined to drive issues of “wellbeing” to the forefront of politics – and I have no doubt that it will be one of the key areas in the next general election. But – and this is why I wanted to stimulate this debate and involve high-flying MPS like James Purnell and Tim Loughton – do our politicians have anything to contribute beyond warm words and the occasional policy gimmick? As Madeleine Bunting asked bluntly, “If we’re rude, self-centred and obsessed with celebrity, will an MP’s hectoring make any difference?”

The most frightening – but also exciting – thing about all this is that we just don’t know. We haven’t even worked out some basic questions. I think these include:

• How do these cultural and values-based concerns intersect with poverty and equality? In other words, is affluenza a middle-class disease, and if not, how does its manifest itself with low earners and families on benefit?

• Is our priority therefore to provide more money or to provide other support? What would that support be? How do we answer the “nanny-state” charge?

• Are the measurements about happiness reliable? What do they really mean? Can they guide us when it comes to policy decisions? Will we want to accept the consequences e.g. about the promotion of marriage, children being looked after at home, or a re-focus away from economic growth?

• Does a focus on GWB – general well-being – as advocated by David Cameron not just obscure age old political questions of what makes a good society and how we can bring it about?

• Is this issue, at the end of the day, more of a pseudo or genuinely spiritual one, its course destined to be determined by individuals and movements in civil society, not by politicians or government at all?….

I have begun to believe that wellbeing is somewhat analogous to the environment, but about 20 years behind. Only now is a “green sensibility” part of everyday conversation and mainstream politics. Just recently have the mechanisms to make a difference – recycling, carbon-off-setting and the like, become widespread.

I think the big difference between the two issues is that concern for the environment has always suffered because the consequences of not taking action always seemed far off – in terms of geography or time. The results of our inadequate attention to well-being – what Neal Lawson of Compass calls our “social recession” – are all around us…..

I think we are taking the first tentative steps to bringing some emotional and psychic healing to our culture. It will, like most roads to recovery, be rocky and any progress will be met with resistance. But we should nevertheless celebrate the start of the journey. We can draw up a new map for our politics and culture that places a reduction in mental illness, and an increase in emotional wellbeing, as its final destination. Come join the expedition.

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