Pie-in-the-sky populists need to have their bubble pricked

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Pie-in-the-sky populists need to have their bubble pricked

Let’s fix the potholes before we promise to tar the flipping road. Back to basics is the only way to go

Mark Barnes


Pain-free populism is fine if you just need to floss, but when you need root canal treatment it’s out with the needles, the drills. Eina, for sure, but it’ll save the tooth.
The conundrum is obvious. If you want to effect change, you must be in charge. To be in charge, you must be elected. To be elected you must be popular. To be popular you must make promises – promises to the disaffected, promises to the masses, popular promises.
Formulating objective policy for sustainable growth is what’s required, but that will start with planting, not harvesting, so that’s no good.
The truth is that we’ve moved way past policy, past promises even, to personalities. The world order is in the hands of very, very few personalities wanting to have their way rather than implement or even formulate policies that won’t produce a mid-term harvest. All the way from the hectic Trump (narcissistic, know it all, a child) leading the crazy index by some margin, through Putin and Jong-un to Jinping, Merkel and the “We walk straight, so you’d better get out the way” schoolboy politics of May (give it up Theresa, it was a mistake, a populist one) and even Macron, who seems to be sticking to his guns despite des gilets jaunes.
Ironically, to win, populism must compromise. The herd is always gathered in the middle of the bell curve, the catalysts for change often left lingering in the tails, both left and right. Things don’t get done by the middle – in the comfort zones of compliance and continuity. The middle won’t change course – they don’t take risks, they don’t make decisions. No new mistakes, just a continuation of the old ones that have become habits. That would be okay if everything was in good shape, but we know it isn’t.
At a political level populism is fractious, not unifying. It invites the emergence of multiple parties where the most outrageous promises drive central policy formulation. It manifests in coalitions that are stitched together by the flimsiest of intersecting ideas or constituency-specific issues. They don’t last. They don’t deal with any hard stuff, and yet it is the hard stuff that binds us, not the wish lists.
Compromise manifests in the hamstrung decision makers who have to check whether what they want to do will keep them in multiparty power, not whether it is right or necessary. Tax breaks, free services, lenience, handouts – these are the sweeties of populist policy that provide temporary highs, or even relief, but its damn difficult to get the balance right.
Imagine how expensive education will become once it’s free, no rules. We’ll have to introduce another currency to pay for it, like merit. You pass, we pay; you fail, you pay – no exceptions. Lowering the pass mark won’t help either. Education must create productive capacity – if that’s not an output then you create instead a recurring, increasing input cost. Expensive votes indeed.
Winners of popularity contests don’t tolerate dissent, they’re scared of it. Trump essentially got Mattis to resign. I rest my case. When arguably the most qualified defence secretary in the world is forced to resign you’d better get worried. “Yes men” effectively reduce the number of brains in the room to one. Worse still, that one is you, the very person who’s just got rid of the experts in favour of the friends.
Populist campaign promises become crusades, obsessions that cause collateral damage, all in the name of continued voter confidence. Consider Trump’s wall. Say no more.
The hard part about fixing things is not working out what has to be done, but actually getting it done. It takes time and money, for sure, but mostly it requires expertise and experience. True experts don’t even enter popularity contests; it’s not what turns them on. Don’t call a cardiologist to a hospital management meeting. Stay out of his operating theatre. Scalpel, operate, stitch. Learn, modify, repeat. Authorised entry only. Don’t interrupt experts at work and, for goodness’ sake; don’t override them.
Of course even the best surgeons must subscribe to medical best practice and hospital policy – those rules are also there for a purpose. Remember, though, that operating theatres have standard procedures for normal conditions. If blood starts spurting out unexpectedly, get out of the way and let the cardiologist do what must be done to save a life.
Back to basics. Let’s go hire some pothole fillers. We’ll put the nice new tar surface on afterwards, but only afterwards.
Mark Barnes is CEO of the Post Office.

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