TUMBY BAY - Ever since neo-liberalism gained ground in the 1990s governments have persistently used economics to define their policies.
Neo-liberalism is used to refer to market-oriented policies such as eliminating price controls, deregulating capital markets, lowering trade barriers and reducing state influence in the economy, especially through privatisation and austerity.
Economists now seem to rule the roost. Unfortunately they don’t seem able to agree about much and they show a distinct lack of knowledge about anything beyond their narrow lens of interest.
They ignore inequality, have oversold the benefits of globalisation and are woefully inaccurate when it comes to predicting economic trends. They did not, for instance, foresee the global financial crisis of 2007-08.
The form of rationalism currently promoted by economists includes the idea that commercial activity has no room for moral considerations and that individual self-interest is all that matters.
The amoral and asocial nature of economic rationalism can be summed up in the well-known statement of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1987, when she said: "There is no such thing as society. There are individuals, and there are families."
What Thatcher actually meant is open to dispute but since she uttered those words we have seen almost everything in society monetised and given a dollar value.
If you ask a politician today about what they are doing about a social issue they will invariably come back to you with a dollar value.
Throwing money at problems is of dubious value. Increasing funding for education, for instance, has been shown not to improve the standards of teaching in schools.
This is particularly so in places like Papua New Guinea where corruption is rife. Increasing the funding for education, health and other services simply increases the opportunities for theft.
The narrow lens that economists apply does not recognise a whole range of non-monetary values inherent in society. To quote an old adage, they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
They don’t recognise, for instance, the values of contentment and happiness. Instead, they persist in believing that money can buy happiness.
If you follow the actions of Donald Trump, and increasingly Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, you will notice how the profit motive or the concept of value for money colours everything they do.
This is why Australia under Morrison now has no separate department for the arts and why literature has never gained any traction with the politicians in PNG.
They can’t see any profit and therefore don’t want to provide any support.
Doing a deal has now also supplanted what used to be domestic and foreign policy. Foreign aid, apart from humanitarian aid, now comes with a price tag.
All of the developing nations in the world now know that any aid they receive will come at a cost.
That cost may come in the form of housing unwanted asylum seekers or it might come in the form of making strategic assets like deep water ports available.
Given this shift in emphasis, it might be prudent for developing nations, particularly in regions like the Pacific, to consider what they might now safely trade for aid consideration.
Their tradeable stock need not relate to physical assets. Esoteric assets can have equally valuable currency.
Diplomatic recognition of Taiwan as part of China, for instance, now has an economic benefit and can effectively be sold.
In this modern dog-eat-dog world the geo-political strategic value of the small Pacific island nations is just as much a commodity as oil, gas and metals that come out of the mines.
If it is legitimate in these modern times to monetise everything then there is no reason why Pacific island nations can’t be pragmatic and monetise those more esoteric commodities they have in exchange for aid.
If aid and the receipt of aid is now a transactional arrangement then it might be time for Pacific leaders to work out exactly what they want to charge on their side of the deal.