Is this leadership?

Viruses don’t discriminate between, or recognize, their host regardless of whether they are a businessperson, nurse, president, electrician or prime minister. Despite this, tight travel restrictions in 2020-21 which have prevented family reunions, funeral attendance and much needed holidays for parents who have become full time teachers (on top of their regular jobs), didn’t apply the same way for a small group of potential hosts, many of whom imposed, and unequivocally endorsed, the science-based lockdown rules.

The trust deficit between politicians and scientists is evidenced in the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer results which rank government leaders thirty-two points lower than scientists.

For many people, it was reassuring to see political advice endorsed by well-reputed scientists during the pandemic. Scientists are not only experts for solving public health challenges (like global pandemics), but also fill a trust deficit that politicians face when trying to convince citizens to follow their advice. Unfortunately, some of these scientists have recently been unwittingly politicized and their recommendations tarnished by spinsters.

One has to wonder what community of scientists would have endorsed hosting an international face to face meeting in the midst of a pandemic. Would it have been more environmentally friendly to discuss climate change over Zoom rather than flying in jets for a three day summit? Could an ‘in principal’ 15% minimum corporate tax be announced without the need for a face to face meeting in Cornwall? Was it good optics for representative leadership to have a fancy dress beach/garden party and scenic photo ops in the midst of a global pandemic where citizens of these countries are on lockdown? Should taxpayers be paying for these trips in the midst of unprecedented government deficits financed by monetized debt?

Photo ops and communiques have small impacts on the important technical aspects of G20 agreements which are designed by experts long before they are communicated. These meeting are better characterised as the face of the final decision than the brains and brunt behind very challenging negotiations. From a cost benefit perspective, it is hard to imagine how a face to face G7 summit in 2021 would have been endorsed or desired as a good decision from an economic, political or, public health perspective. While correlation is not causation, it is worth noting that covid rates increased dramatically in Cornwall from 2.8 per 100,000 (before the summit) to 81.7 per 100,000 (just days after it ended) which, to be fair, is what science would have predicted.

So how is it that this small group of elected and representative politicians from the world’s richest democracies justified imposing a marginally expensive public health risk on the citizens they are accountable to, many of whom were locked down at home and not permitted to travel abroad or meet in person. The answer is that they didn’t need to. Citizens don’t vote on trivial government expenses – you agreed to pay for this trip when you voted.

While politicians have never ranked amoung the most popular segment of society, trust in government leadership has been on a more notable downward trajectory since the 2010’s following the Financial crisis of 2007/08. This led the Edelman trust barometer to characterise 2012 as “the fall of government” and 2013 as “a crisis of leadership”. In 2021, government was ranked as the most incompetent and unethical when compared with business, NGOs, and even the media. Similar findings came from a 2020 Kantar survey with only half of respondents in G7 countries saying that they trust their government to make the right decisions in the future based on the response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Over the past few years, governments across the developed world have assigned themselves increasing degrees of power and control when it comes to spending and printing money with impressively low levels of accountability when it comes to financial decision making. Moreover, when scandals or mismanagement are discovered, apologies, reports, and ‘we’ll do better next time’ seem to be the standard response. The paradox here comes from the findings that the segment of society which has been rated as the most incompetent and unethical has been given more decision making power in the midst of an international crisis without raising the issue of the decision making apparatus that led to these declining levels of trust in decision makers. Despite over ten years of declining trust in government and increasing levels of polarization, we still seem to cling to the notion that the traditional systems of governance are still ‘the best of all evils’, and attribute the problem to the politicians themselves, many of whom have become highly divisive in the countries where they govern (Trump, Johnson, Trudeau, Bolsanaro to name a few).

As I have argued before, this is more a failure of the design and exercise of the social contract than of the divisive politicians we elect. Part of the wider solution is not to simply give more power to politicians and central bankers or to hope we elect someone better next time under the same outdated system, but to create a more effective governance apparatus to ensure that the decisions reached are the most beneficial to the progress of societies and the social, legal, public health and financial rules apply to everyone equally.

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