They don’t think of ‘trust’ much when they talk about the economy. They split it up. They, the technocrats. They put such things as ‘trust’, ‘integrity’, ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ in the box marked ‘social’; something to deal with “after we get the economy right.”
The ‘economy’ is presumed to be about measured outputs and inputs, jobs, resources, costs, returns, GDP. The environment is even more disconnected. It’s just a set of ‘resources’. Easier to exploit when you remove moral consideration for generations to come, or of any need to understand how an environment and a society actually work in the long term.
It leads to an engineered future in a world they think is certain and controllable, to autocracy, hierarchy and obedience, to small set tasks, to the grind of life within a corporatised machine where free thought is a risk, and where expression of that thought – whether from inside or from the public – is seen as dissent, even open revolt. And then we begin to distrust them. Who are these people who presume to rule?
Such limited economic and social thinking is so dry, it’s combustible.
It is also dangerously wrong.
If you were to ask the question of what it is that makes a community, a workplace or an economy work, then looking at it through numbers in a computer model alone is as blind, blinkered and stark raving bonkers as raising a child without any ethical ethos of care. Which, come to think of it, some mechanical thinkers have proposed in the past – and still do with such things as national standards in education.
Some better-educated political economists see the world within a richer space outside the delusions of computer models and assuming what cannot be counted doesn’t count. Manfred Max-Neef refers to the need for ‘people-centred’ development; building essential capacities for engaged and hope-filled communities. If development is just focused on ‘resources’ and building the next big mill with land and people as mere grist, then it does more harm than good. Easy exploitation is the consequence of treating land and people as lifeless lumps, as numbers.
Amartya Sen researched the need for justice, without which economies don’t perform. Why? Because why bother achieving anything if someone with more power, worse morals and less merit will cut off the poppy before it can even flower. Are we building or degrading justice in our world?
But the real clincher is the work of Robert Putnam. He researched what he termed ‘social capital’, and the links with the resilience, dynamism and diversity of local economies. And he found something profound; if you want to build a strong economy, or any highly performing organisation, then build the social capital – the trust, participation, sense of belonging, engagement, spirit of cooperation and collective action. You cannot create that culture if you don’t have integrity, a real regard for the greater good, and for truth.
You could – and we do – pursue a Viking raider type extractive economy based on the exploitation of some finite resource like coal, gold or oil; or on the degradation of a slow-revolving natural system such as a forest, a fishery, water and soils. But such an economy won’t last, and it won’t build a strong society.
But build a strong society, and you’ll build a strong and creative economy without the exploitation. Putnam’s work in the late 1990s was such a challenge to those economists who can only see the world through models and nonsense assumptions, that they promptly ignored him. Better to be the ostrich than look out into the real world. And yet it is such a hope-filled message. The control freaks are wrong. The technocrats are not wise. Culture matters. An openhearted, openly dialoguing democracy is gold.
And the same lessons apply to organisations. If they have strong cultural capital – open dialogue, participation and engagement that goes far beyond cynical box-ticking tokenism, honest reporting and integrity – then you build trust and the cultural freedom to see beyond boundaries in time and convention, to innovate, to live and work to greater goals than any prescribed task.
That is a culture of learning, dialogue, wisdom, innovation, diversity and achievement.
Which all raises the question about where we are heading within New Zealand and our provinces. Trust in our Members of Parliament has fallen to 8 percent. In 1992, around the time leading up to the MMP debate, it had dropped to 23 percent from over 50 in the early 1980s. We thought then that 23 percent was bad!
We now live in an age where many of the people and practices within our public service departments, large corporations and our parliament are far more interested in deal making, back room collusion and the manufacturing of truth. The erosion of integrity has lead to an erosion of trust. That cannot be disputed.
But what those responsible ought to realise is that this erosion of our democratic culture and our trust in the agendas and integrity of key institutions is costing our economy. It is eroding the very spirit and function that is its foundation.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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An edited version of this article was published in the Hawke’s Bay Today.