Is it possible for us to have a popular population policy?

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HERE’S a question: if you were to bet on a coin toss – heads, you lose a thousand pounds; tails, you win X number of pounds – what would X have to be in order for you to take the bet? Research has shown that, for most people, they’d need a win of at least two thousand pounds before they even considered risking a grand of their own money. And according to the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, this proves a fundamental truth about human nature: in any decision-making process, we are primarily governed by our fear of loss.

He spent decades studying it (even bagged himself a Nobel Prize in the process), and during all of that time he consistently found that this phenomenon of ‘loss aversion’ is the one emotion that affects our judgment more than any other.

I guess it’s understandable, really, when you think about the millions of years of bitter evolutionary battles that we’ve endured – one wrong decision and it’s ‘game over’ for you and your entire bloodline. It’s the kind of thing that can make a species a little twitchy. But surely now we can afford to relax a little bit. I mean, you don’t have to be a Nobel Laureate to see that this way of thinking has become a little outmoded. And when it comes to the really big decisions, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s pretty much the main culprit in holding us back.

Take population, for example. It’s the one issue that’s shaping up to be Jersey’s recurring nightmare, and yet it’s not like we couldn’t have predicted that it’d become a problem (there’s nine miles in one direction, five in the other, and then there’s the sea – it kind of feels like an inevitable discussion). So what, then, is stopping us from grabbing the bull by the horns and having the all-out public and political debate on it?

Cue Professor Kahneman and his million coin-flips’ worth of human research: we’re grappling with a deep-seated, almost subconscious fear of loss. And it has wound its way into pretty much every corner of our society.

First, you have the politicians who are so afraid of losing votes, support, approval, affirmation, and so on, that they daren’t nail their colours to the mast. In fact, most of them daren’t even go down below decks and find the little locker where they stowed their colours, just to make sure they’re still there.

Second, you have the business community, whose fears are a little more upfront: they worry about losing employees, losing money and losing opportunities.

And then there’s the general population, whose fears are divided between losing some vanishing image of Jersey they knew in their childhoods, or else losing valuable freedoms if a right-wing government were to lock down the borders.

Basically, it’s really, really complicated. But it needs sorting out.

So who’s going to do it? Well, the Chief Minister said that he’d have a go, but then it turned out that by ‘me’, he actually meant ‘my assistant’. Okay fine, so what’s his assistant got to say? It’s hard to tell at such an early stage, but what he does at least have in his favour is that even the bare minimum would be an improvement on what the previous lot managed to achieve.

We all remember the endless merry-go-round of faffing and procrastinating that the last government subjected us to. And then at the end of it all, their big announcement was that we needed to give it more time (because that’s what had been missing all these years: more time).

No, enough’s enough. We need to stop waiting for the right moment to talk about this, because the right moment isn’t coming. It’s never going to be easy – in fact, it’s only going to keep getting harder. Soon we’ll need to be making decisions about settled status, about farmworkers, and about a thousand other things, and those decisions are always going to play out the same way: there will be those who applaud them, those who are relatively indifferent to them, and those who unleash a Category 5 hate storm on you for even suggesting them.

But that’s life. That’s politics.

So, new ministers, take note: there can be no more putting this off. You need to take a deep breath and you need to locate your political cojones. And then, you need to start setting out some meaningful positions on this issue.

Because, regardless of whether you’re someone who believes that Jersey needs more people, the same amount or fewer, or whether you think that’s not the point at all and it’s all about the engine of the economy or long-term sustainability or… something else we haven’t even thought of yet, there’s one thing you can’t dispute: time is in perilously short supply, and what we need now is a decision on something that actually looks like proper policy.

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