Social policy, politics and inequality (theme)

Some of the main areas of social policy include wellbeing and welfare, the economy and business, poverty reduction, education, crime and criminal justice, equality of opportunity and access to services, safety and security, employment and unemployment, living conditions, pensions, health care, housing, , social care, family policy and child protection, social exclusion, immigration, citizenship, planning and development, energy, conservation, foreign policy and animal rights.

Social policy normally evolves in response to changes in society (political forces and stakeholder interests, demographics, social pressures, social norms,economic conditions, etc.). What if policy formulation was more science-based while still operating within a democratic framework (e.g. informed by scientific findings in social science, by testing hypotheses about the impacts of different policies on different groups, and assessing in detail both the intended and unintended consequences)? This would make policy less based on ideology and speculation and more based on evidence.

In the UK, the Behavioural Insights Team – a spin-off from the cabinet office, and organisations such as CaSP and CUSPE are doing just this. These postings explore policy issues and approaches to policy formulation, often questioning some of the fundamental assumptions about how we live as a society.

Society can drive you mad
‘Society Can Drive You Mad’ shows why it is important to understand wellbeing in the individual and how society often undermines it. It shows why we need a better understanding of wellbeing and control.

Policy regulates behaviour
‘Policy regulates behaviour’ reveals how decision-making in the cabinet office takes place. Far from being a structured or scientific process it is mainly influenced by factors like how easy it is to implement, who is shouting the loudest, and whether it can be supported by a credible story.

The new economics (radio play)
‘The new economics’ is an experimental radio play set in 2050 as the wellbeing index climbs through 10,000. It’s cast of characters, including a modified virtual ‘upload’ of David Cameron, are mainly played by synthetic voices.

Can citizens make good decisions
‘Can citizens make good decisions’ looks at ways in which we might assess whether citizens can usefully participate in political decision making.

Twelve radical policies
‘Twelve radical policies’ was written shortly after Theresa May became prime-minister in July 2016 and made her speech about the need for greater social justice. They say a week is a long time in politics! A general election later, judge for yourself whether she has created greater social justice, let alone moved towards the 12 radical policies suggested at that time.

Who’s to blame?
‘Who’s to blame?’ considers how we might increasingly turn our attention to notions of blame, equality and legal/moral responsibility as artificial intelligence systems increasing encroach on the traditional job market.

True Value
‘True Value’ considers how current systems of economics and finance distort our notions of value and, in many ways, prevent us seeing and maximising ‘true value’

It doesn’t end with Grenfell – Accountability and Power
‘It doesn’t end with Grenfell’ looks at how accountability and responsibility have become diluted in the modern global economy, separating consequence from action in many areas of life, such as company regulation and customer services.

UK Industrial Strategy
‘A UK Industrial Strategy was published in November 2017. This posting looks briefly at what it contains and is generally supportive of its intentions and approach, but does it go far enough and, in relation to productivity, it has it all wrong.

What’s your position?
Positioning theory illuminates our understanding of rights, duties, expectations and vulnerabilities. It addresses the dynamics of power and control and is a potent tool for understanding the self, the individual in the context of others, relationships, and social institutions. It even transcends the distinction between people and objects and has profound implications for the development of artificial intelligence.

Brexit is not the issue
Politics in the UK is being monopolised by Brexit, but leaving Europe was never the issue.  The 2016 referendum was mainly a protest vote against increasing inequality, austerity and government.  The two-party system promotes binary thinking.  That’s the real issue.  What we need is diversity.

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.