Book Review: Keeping the Focus on Human Wellbeing with State Policies and Practices
By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University
Social Policy on the Cusp: Values, Institutions and Change
By Brij Mohan and Guy Bäckman (with contributions by Stan Weeber and Eleni Makri)
Nova Science Publishers
2020 329 pp.
“Algorithms of change need not be harbingers of a heartless future.”
-- Brij Mohan in “Science, Morality and Public Policy” (Ch. 2)
People engage with each other through the rules of their respective societies and around shared understandings. The essential bargain is that people are willing to give up some freedoms and adhere to taxation because they receive some public goods and protections from legal systems. Social tensions arise when the rewards of sociality accrue systematically in imbalanced ways to some and not others, when there are built-in social inequalities, prejudices, and short-shrifting.
In an age of change into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), what are some ways to re-jigger social agreements to better meet the needs of all citizens, in an Enlightenment approach? How can universal human dignity be achieved, with social and economic justice for all? These are the issues that Brij Mohan and Guy Bäckman (with contributions by Stan Weeber and Eleni Makri) engage in Social Policy on the Cusp: Values, Institutions and Change (2020), a collection which is simultaneously naively idealistic and practical, informed by 20th century history and a mish-mash of ideologies, and ultimately informed by the practice of general social critique.
Social Idealisms and On-Ground Lived Lives
Brij Mohan’s “Hope and Happiness: A Policy Paradox” (Ch. 1) focuses on the pursuit of individual human happiness in a decidedly brutal world, with “killer tornadoes, forest fires, landslides, hurricanes—not to speak of the ravages of ethnic cleansing, mayhem, war and gun violence” (2020, p. 5). The pursuit of happiness exists on multiple levels—of the self and of the societal. An individual works to understand reality, make choices, and look forward; they strive to meet their own basic needs, including ecological, material, and spiritual ones. In society with others, they work towards freedom by overcoming violence, striving for “social equality” and “justice” and using action against social oppression (Mohan, “Hope and…,” 2020, p. 6). He cautions that policy making wins may actually be illusory, so striving for social change has to include observations of what is real. If digital revolution is a change agent of “the culture of work, structure of equality, and the nature of people and their environment” (Mohan, “Hope and…,” 2020, p. 12), perhaps ensuring that social changes for human betterment may evolve along with the technologies. In this work, he warns that progress is “neither linear nor permanent,” and hard-won progress has to be affirmed again and again for the changes to hold (Mohan, “Science, Morality…,” 2020, p. 18). Mohan provides a history of ideas and practices around social constructs. He warns that social inequality is a threat to society, even as the present has Dickensian levels of privation. This work takes a counterview of extant systems, by extolling ideas of amoral corporations, insensitive governments, and self-dealing ideologies. In its place, this work proposes new ways of thinking and social relationships that may be more pro-human and pro-environment and a disruption of power structures—although the concepts are so broad that it is hard to see how these may translate in the applied real world.
Human Value and Policy Foci
Brij Mohan’s “The Mythology of a Whitopean Welfare State: La Grand Replacement” (Ch. 3) suggests that ethnocentric tribal nationalism is necessarily transient, given the U.S. context in which “a formidable demographic entity of the aggrieved, white, males in America, triumphantly embodied by Trumpian memes, crescendos and tropes” have promoted a myth of white supremacy (p. 34). To hold particular positions means some inhumane policy outcomes, such as the position that “American evangelicals are significantly crueler in their attitudes toward migrant children than the national norm” (Gerson, Nov. 2, 2019, as cited in Mohan, “The Mythology…,” 2020, p. 35), in terms of family separations at the southern border of the U.S. The ideology of racial superiority has a dark history of social caste systems in India and Nazism globally, and in this time-space, it is a sign of “the decay of the Western society” and a diminishing old order (p. 39). The existence of these ideas diminish the value of some people’s lives over others and can have negative outcomes in terms of society.
Brij Mohan’s “Nihilism: Policy Principles, Paradigms and Politics” (Ch. 4) proposes that “all public and social policies ought to be hinged together to mitigate nihilism, a condition that calls for public and private interventions without dehumanizing regulations”; effective policy measures “minimize alienation to promote healthy social wellbeing” (Mohan, “Nihilism…,” 2020, p. 42). Effective social policies imbue human life with inherent meaning and value; they do not support the nihilistic concept of meaninglessness or the eschewing of religious and moral principles.
National Identities in the Post-Colonial Era of the Indian Subcontinent
In “Oppression, Modernity and Post-Colonialism: ‘The Will to Know’” (Ch. 4), Mohan explores how various countries of the Indian subcontinent have organized socially in the post-colonial era by exploring a grab bag of ideas used for nation building, resulting in divergent points of reference for various peoples. (A quibble: A number of these chapters by Mohan read like personal essays and thought pieces, with highly selective information snippets and opinion but less in the way of fully articulated argument and citations. The writing forms enable a level of self-indulgence which would not be tolerated in actual peer-reviewed academic writing, except for invited pieces by elder states people in a field.)
National Economies and Human Wellbeing
At global scale, there is the West with economic engines running with general efficiencies, and then there are the rest, with efforts at development and low idle. (In this view, China is not brought up as a player even though it has the first or second largest economy in the world, depending on how one is counting.) Guy Bäckman ’s “Post-Industrial Changes and Social Policy” (Ch. 6) focuses on economic development and social policy commitments striving to address “poverty, inequalities and social exclusion” (p. 65). This data-based and analytical work begins with the post-WWII era and shows how national economies have evolved.
As many economies de-industrialize, and with wealth concentrated in few hands, larger swaths of the general population are left out of wealth accrual depending on trained skills and available jobs and paths to advance. The author argues that economies have to balance three main elements appropriately: “economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection” (Bäckman , “Post-Industrial…,” 2020, p. 78), even as these elements are held in tension, with tradeoffs. How societies set up depend in part on culture, on government, on industries, and others. Considering the impacts of decisions and actions on peoples in a population are critical. What happens with child nutrition, healthcare, education, and wellbeing? What happens with social cohesion? What happens with the building of social capital? What about the plight of immigrants and refugees? Bäckman argues eloquently for more comprehensive considerations in policy-making and policy actions and smarter social investments. (“Post-Industrial…,” 2020, p. 88)
Guy Bäckman ’s “The Inertia of Changes” (Ch. 7) begins with a truism, that peace is a pre-requisite for development (and human conflict is highly expensive not only in lives and treasure but opportunity). In the present day, there are risks of “rising military tensions, disturbances in the world economy and in trade policy” (Bäckman , “The Inertia…,” 2020, p. 92), particularly among the world’s superpowers (U.S., China, Russia) engaged in great power geopolitics in a time when there is an “absence of clear rules for international order or the balance of power” (p. 93).
This work echoes the questions of why humanity is still “burdened with war, corruption and poverty” even after centuries of co-existence and human leadership and technological advances (Kramer, 2015, as cited in Bäckman , “The Inertia…,” 2020, p. 99). Have there been obvious solutions that have been missed? Why do humans put predatory leaders into positions of power, even when the warning signs are there? With so many peoples in the world aging, how can respective governments handle the responsibilities of caring for prior generations while not shorting opportunities for the up-and-coming, in a sustainable way? How can societies root out corruption that can skew policy-making and decision-making? The author goes on to review the literature about the elements required for good governance and the importance of citizen trust for governments to be able to face challenges.
Social Welfare: Higher Taxation for Broad Social Provisioning
Guy Bäckman ’s “The European Welfare Regimes: The Pursuit of Equality and Sustainability” (Ch. 8) enlists a comparative approach in terms of governance. In a sense, all countries’ policies are social experiments in real-time and real-space. Different liberal welfare states evolve different policy regimes and systems based on “historical, political, religious, cultural, economic and social developments” (Bäckman , “The European…,” 2020, p. 116). This work begins with German social insurance reforms of the 1880s to explain some of the earliest moves in Europe for social policy. Then, different movements and thinkers advanced different ideas about where social wellbeing lay (in family over the state) and methods for ensuring this welfare. Bäckman tracks the intellectual provenance of “welfare capitalism” in the main forms: liberal, conservative-corporatist, and social -democratic (“The European…,” 2020, p. 117). In the various systems as instantiated in different countries, there are different measures of success, such as the percentages of those in a population at risk of poverty or social exclusion, across European Union countries (based on Eurostar data from 2019). The Nordic social-democratic welfare types in Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have the lowest percentages of at-risk peoples (15.3 – 17.7%) (Bäckman , “The European…,” 2020, p. 120). The author explores the nuances and complexities in the comparative data. He also identifies high-risk vs. low-risk countries for youth at risk of poverty or social exclusion, with 2017 data (Bäckman , “The European…,” 2020, p. 123). On the practical side, the increased state responsibilities for citizen wellbeing raise public spending (and taxation), with 28% of GDP spent on social protection in the 28 European Union countries. (Bäckman , “The European…,” 2020, p. 126) For all the costs, the goals are only partially realized, with “unemployment, poverty, and social exclusion, and also the shrinking size of the working-age population” as some of the barriers (Bäckman , “The European…,” 2020, p. 129). Within the EU, particular regions (the South, the East) have greater challenges than others. Demographic changes have brought on the so-called Silver Economy, with a need to focus on “healthy aging, digital development, living and services in age-friendly neighbourhoods” (Bäckman , “The European…,” 2020, p. 135).
It may be easy to idealize what one imagines is happening elsewhere. Such a subject of idolization may be the Nordic welfare model (at least in the mass media). Guy Bäckman ’s “The Nordic Welfare Model and its Social Policy” (Ch. 9) provides a solidly cited history of the Nordic welfare system, originating during a time of economic expansion (1945 – 1973), and informed by democratic values of “helpfulness, equality and solidarity”; in the social-democratic welfare model, citizens enjoy “universal coverage and equal treatment” but at a cost of high taxes (Bäckman , “The Nordic…,” 2020, p. 137). This work covers the evolution of such policies over time and variances between the respective countries. Aging populations have increased the costs, to cover “early retirement and old age pensions, institutional care and housing services, home care and support for informal care” and others (Bäckman , “The Nordic…,” 2020, p. 142). Digitalization of societies is seen as a mark of modernity and support for citizens, and the Nordic countries have been able to adapt well, as measured by the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) (Bäckman , “The Nordic…,” 2020, p. 145). Current challenges involve the integration of refugees immigrants into Sweden and other countries, to ensure their wellbeing.
Digital Economy Structures and Effects on Social Policies
Guy Bäckman ’s “Digital Economy and Social Policy” (Ch. 10) focuses on the advance of “digital culture” (computation, algorithmic thinking, big data, robotics, and others), resulting in new approaches to social organization. Such advances have enabled privacy infringements and data leakage, environmental destruction through e-waste, “dark politics” hidden to most data consumers, “technostress” experienced by those intimidated by the technologies, computer addiction, and other challenges (Bäckman , “Digital Economy…,” 2020, p. 180). Just social systems need to be inclusive in the benefits from digital economies and the harms from such advances need to be mitigated.
Smart Cities’ Disparate Impacts on Citizens?
The infrastructure for building smart cities have been advancing globally, with broadband, smart sensor networks, smart transportation, automated services, and real-time awareness. These advances, ideally, would enhance energy efficiency, promote modern-life conveniences, lessen air pollution, move people efficiently, and support intermingled living. The resiliency of cities focuses on ways to ruggedize the built environment against various natural (earthquakes, severe weather events like tornadoes, wildfires, floods, drought) and human-made threats (terrorism, industrial accidents), to protect against life and work disruptions. The 5G wireless network refers to heightened connectivity that may benefit a range of innovations. Stan Weeber’s “Smart Cities, Resilience, and the 5G Revolution: Implications for Social Policy” (Ch. 11) suggests that if such advances continue without consideration of social justice issues, there will be a cost to the vulnerable in society, who will be left behind.
The author writes: “In the three movements…there is a minimal discussion in the literature about how these new ideas will lift the disadvantaged in our society. Affordable housing for the elderly or use of smart medicine were part of the initial pitch by 5G advocates but such features fell off the table later as companies pursued profits over people” (Weeber, 2020, p. 235). He refers to two federally funded projects in Kansas City, Missouri, to highlight his points: the Kansas City No Violence Alliance (KCNOVA) that uses social network analysis to identify potential future crime victims (p. 237)…and Living Lab (by Sprint and Cisco Systems) (p. 238). This researcher advocates a social policy lens to consider the well-being of all citizens to address inequality and injustice, even as cities evolve and modernize.
Diverse Religious Identities in Workplaces
Eleni Makri’s “Workplace Religious Diversity: A New Global Media Technology Workforce” (Ch. 12) focuses on how ICT brings together workers “from different cultures, religions, physical abilities and gender orientation” in electronic workplaces and virtual teaming (2020, p. 243). This researcher asks of the “new information or digital technology revolution”: “Do they create a great risk for the welfare of work, the nature of jobs in demand and the associated work (employee) relations and organizational outcomes within and across institutions, or do they posit more opportunities?” (Makri, 2020, p. 248)
She highlights the definition of diversity as “acknowledging, comprehending and approving individuals’ differences in terms of their religion, culture, age, gender orientation, physical and mental ability, nationality, educational level, income and geographical location, among others” (Dike, 2013, p. 5, as cited in Makri, 2020, p. 253). On the other side, discrimination may force people to hide dimensions of their own identities. It has negative impacts on “job satisfaction, organizational identification, commitment and citizenship behaviour” (Makri, 2020, pp. 257 - 258). If historically identity differences have resulted in clashes and frictions, perhaps new civility and mutual understandings will lead to improved employee incentives and attitudes and ultimately workplace productivity. These are not new ideas per se, but their reinforcement supports professional practices.
Nothing less than “the meaning of human existence” is being shaped by present-day digital technologies, including “robotic surgery, gene-editing practices, electrifying medicine” (Mohan, Epilogue, 2020, p. 275). Who benefits in society depends on the policies and practices in place about how these resources will be applied. Mohan takes as premise that “science and technology are amoral” and so require a purposively “positivistic-humanitarian orientation” and focuses on egalitarianism, justice, inclusivity of the marginalized, civility, and a pursuit of democracy (while eschewing the “temptations of the Chinese success” as a potential alternate to democracy) (Mohan, Epilogue, 2020, p. 276). He closes with a quote that suggests that humanity predates God, and from that logic, he argues: “Human needs and proclivities to survive predate our Creator. Since His divine order has failed to distribute justice and used abstract proxies to justify inequality—like karma and dharma—it’s upon us, mortals, to design our future” based on the premises of “dignity, decency and Enlightenment” (Mohan, Epilogue, 2020, p. 277).
At the core of the respective works still seems to be a capitalistic model of human economic interchange. This means that solutions have to take into consideration something of profit for financial sustainability. (Even in socialist systems, there is no printing press for funds, and at some point, the budget has to be rationalized.)
This capitalist impression is belied by the opening quote by the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg in the Prologue: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth… How dare you” (Thunberg, as cited in Mohan, Prologue, 2020, p. xiii). There is also the assumption of democracy and the relevance of multiple voices, with people telling stories of ourselves and each other, often to help in adaptivity, and often to justify actions. What this all looks like in a lived sense will reveal in coming years.
Social Policy on the Cusp: Values, Institutions and Change (2020) evokes the idea that all people have an ideology, a sense of the universe and their place in it, based on their unique experiences and personalities. This work suggests the state of the world is not a given; it is non-static and can be changed. The contributors highlight the importance of vision and motivation to make lasting constructive societal changes. In the same way that ideas have consequences, in-world realities can also affect ideas—for those who are attentive.
Dr. Mohan is Dean Emeritus (in Social Work) at Louisiana State University and has written 22 books. Dr. Bäckman is Professor Emeritus (in Social Policy) at the University of Helsinki. In the Preface, this is referred to as a work by “two Emeritus Professors on the two sides of the Atlantic who share a common vision about the world’s cohesiveness despite grave inequalities around the globe” (Bäckman, Preface, 2020, p. xvii). Both believe in the possibilities of social-cultural change “if science, technology and governance are in synchrony within a constructive framework of relationships and international transaction” (Bäckman, Preface, 2020, p. xvii). Their narratives “are based on evidence, experience and research with painful awareness of the uncertainty factor” (Mohan, Prologue, 2020, p. xv). After long careers, both co-editors have salted their hopefulness with experience (say, examined lives); they have some practical suggestions for how people may advance societies while considering all citizens and their respective needs in a fair way.
About the Author
Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University. Her email is email@example.com.
Thanks to Nova Science Publishers for providing a watermarked digital copy of this book for review. There are no conflicts of interest in the writing of this review.
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