10 September 2019

Government+big business+judges vs. the people

Christopher Caldwell writes:
Once the judiciary rules politics, all politicians are just talkers....The transfer of competences from legislatures to courts is a superb thing for the rich, because of the way the [British] constitution interacts with occupational sociology. Where the judiciary is drawn from the legal profession, and where the legal profession is credentialed by expensive and elite professional schools, judicialization always means a transfer of power from the country at large to the richest sliver of it. Why hasn't Brexit happened?, Christopher Caldwell, claremont.org, 15 August
Mr Caldwell is writing in the context of Brexit, but this insight applies more broadly. I've often railed against the widening gap between politicians and the people they are supposed to represent. The gap between ordinary citizens and the judiciary is at least as wide. We, the public, have even less buy-in when decisions are made by judges rather than politicians. What happens with contentious issues on which ordinary people have no say? Here, the Economist writes about the abortion debate in the US:
Why did the two sides become so polarised? The main reason is the way abortion was legalised. In many countries, abortion laws were voted for by elected politicians or in referendums. In America, a seven-to-two majority of justices declared abortion a constitutional right. Anti-abortionists question the interpretation of the constitution that produced that ruling and are furious their voices were not heard. Abortion advocates remain fired up by the knowledge that Roe could yet be overturned. What explains Donald Trump’s war on late-term abortions?, the 'Economist', 24 August
Buy-in is important and, with big government, complex societies, and our emphasis on how policy is made and who makes it rather than outcomes, there's very little buy-in remaining at the national level. Corporations, politicians and, increasingly, the judiciary define the economic and social environment in which we live.

Social Policy Bonds, by targeting outcomes with which people can identify could bring about more public participation in the policymaking process. That is an end in itself (see here (pdf) for example), as well as a means by which decisions become acceptable even to those who opposed them. Importantly too, there's more consensus about outcomes than about the supposed means of achieving them. A bond regime would focus policy debate on our social and environmental goals, and which ones shall be prioritised. The process itself would generate more mutual understanding and less of the anger and contempt that are such a feature of today's policymaking.

As well, a bond regime would encourage us to think long term: our goals are far more stable than the ways in which we think we can best achieve them. They are also more transparent as, with Social Policy Bonds, would be their funding. Corporations, their lobbyists and the people in power whom they influence all have an interest in obscuring how funds are allocated, and in failing to monitor whether policies succeed or fail (see Why States Believe Foolish Ideas: Non-Self Evaluation by States and Societies, by Stephen Van Evera (pdf)). It's even more difficult to believe that our new policymakers - the judiciary - will be any more responsive to the needs and wishes of ordinary citizens. With government, big business and now the judiciary determining our economic and social environment, what hope is there for the rest of us? The gap between ruler and ruled is becoming ever wider. Social Policy Bonds could help close it.

For general information about Social Policy Bonds see here. For more about Social Policy Bonds and buy-in see here.

02 September 2019

It's not just dog-food

There is probably more human ingenuity going into devising new ways of selling dog-food than avoiding nuclear war or eradicating poverty or achieving universal literacy. But it's not just dog-food:
For decades, increasingly large numbers of America’s smartest and hardest-​working businesspeople have toiled in extractive pursuits, and the result is an economy that benefits an increasingly smaller percentage of its participants. Many structural reforms are necessary to change this. With regard to education, it is time to reform the top MBA programs. These schools shape our business culture, and, in so doing, exert an outsized influence on the business practices and the career pursuits of some of our most talented young people. The schools should begin with an explicit renunciation of shareholder capitalism. The Financialization of the American Elite, Sam Long, 'American Affairs', Fall 2019
By 'extractive pursuits' Mr Long means 'value extraction and short-term financial speculation'. There's nothing wrong with people choosing to make a career of financial shenanigans (see here for another example) or advertising dog-food. They're not greedy. They have children to bring up, elderly parents to look after.... These intellectual giants are simply reacting rationally to the incentives on offer. But it's a shame for the society that a high proportion of the smartest people on the planet their goals cannot meet their individual goals by helping to solve our huge, urgent social and environmental problems.

Social Policy Bonds are a way of aligning the incentives smart individuals face with those of society. They work by channelling our self-interest into the solution of our social problems. They do so by injecting market incentives into the solution of these problems. In economic theory, and on all the evidence, markets are the best way of allocating society’s scarce resources. So it is unfortunate that, largely for historical reasons, we leave the achievement of national and global social and environmental goals to a command-and-control mechanism that is often inefficient and open to abuse.

Sure, a Social Policy Bond regime would probably see some enrichment of wealthy corporations or individuals, but only as a side-effect of their achieving society's agreed social and environmental goals. The incentives of the people owning Social Policy Bonds and the people they employ would exactly align with those of society. All their activities would be aimed at achieving society's goals as efficiently as possible.
 
A Social Policy Bond regime represents a new departure. It would not reward people merely for undertaking activities that sound worthy, nor for belonging to organisations whose ostensible aims are to help people but are, in reality, less edifying. Rather, a bond regime would reward the achievement of society's goals. Yes, it would divert some of society's scarce resources, including brainpower, away from marketing pet-food or maximising short-term share prices or other super-sophisticated, zero-sum financial manipulation. But we are talking about the potential solution to some of mankind's biggest and most urgent problems: poverty, climate change; even the ending of war. I think it's a worthwhile trade-off.

25 August 2019

How to prevent crime

 Dr Elliott Barker asks how we can prevent crime:
There should be a clear recognition that the only meaningful measure of success in child rearing is an adult with highly developed capacities for trust, empathy, and affection. It follows that the current worship of child rearing practices that evoke the highest possible I.Q., or the child with the greatest possible number of factual crumbs by the lowest age, or the child who can play the cello best at the earliest age should be suspect. How Do We Prevent Crime?, Dr Elliott Barker, the Natural Child Project
The question is not whether we believe (as I do) that we can reduce crime and other social pathologies by taking Dr Barker seriously but whether people have sufficient incentive to investigate how valid his argument is and then to act on their research. I don't think they do. Crime is today largely seen as a matter for policing and punishment. There may or may not be academic research pointing the validity of Dr Barker's arguments. But even if there is, who has the incentive to examine this research, check its validity and act on the results? Very few, and almost nobody with the financial clout to influence the way we bring up our children. Of course, there is good work being done by people such as Dr Barker, and eventually some of their findings do percolate through to a few dedicated researchers and parents. But work on the scale necessary to see widespread changes? The bodies, including government, that could fund such work are far too focused on the short term. And who thinks long term these days?

Social Policy Bonds targeting crime could be one answer. Under a bond regime, we could target a long-term halving of crime rates, sustained for a period of, say, thirty years. A combination of government, NGOs and philanthropists could back these bonds, which could be swelled by public contributions. Once issued, bondholders would form a de facto coalition, whose composition would most probably change over time, but all of whose activities would be aimed at achieving the targeted reduction in crime rates at lowest cost to society.

Long-term thinking and the notion of a coherent society that persists over decades: any attempt to improve social welfare and the environment requires both these qualities. They're not at all prevalent but policies like Social Policy Bonds that need them to work can also create and encourage their proliferation.

19 August 2019

Who thinks long term these days?

Social Policy Bonds haven't gone very far. It's true that their non-tradeable variant, Social Impact Bonds are being issued around the world and are the subject of much academic outpouring. (Academia.edu tells us that there are more than 190 000 papers mentioning 'Social Impact Bonds'.) But Social Policy Bonds? None have been issued that I'm aware of, and they generate little in the way of literature - apart from my own work, of course.

There are several reasons. One is that, while the tradeability of Social Policy Bonds sounds like a technical issue, in political terms it's a bit of a time-bomb. It means that whoever issues the bonds doesn't get to choose who will be rewarded for achieving the targeted goals. In this, Social Policy Bonds are quite different from the SIB model, under which only chosen service providers will benefit from investing in the bonds. These are generally existing service providers. This obviously limits the scope for innovation and the efficiencies it would bring about. Existing service providers have a vested interest in maintaining current ways of doing things. (Indeed, combined with the inherently short-term nature of SIBs, lack of tradeability creates a perverse incentive not to be too efficient, lest issuers of future SIBs targeting the same social problem consequently tighten their efficiency criteria.) In our current political systems there are few incentives to allow new, potentially much more efficient, operators into solving our social and environmental problems. The inherently short-term nature of SIBs mirrors too neatly the short-term goals of politicians and current service providers.

Other reasons for the absence of Social Policy Bonds? One that I've experienced is the disdain of those on the political left for anything that smacks of profit or capital gains, especially in the provision of benefits to the disadvantaged. A sentence from a recent post by Charles Hugh Smith sums it up: we substitute self-​righteousness for problem-​solving. The thinking is as simplistic as it is injurious to the disadvantaged: 'markets are right wing and therefore bad'. I am still hopeful though that there will come, in time, a government, a non-governmental organisation, or a group of philanthropists who will take a long-term view, forgo the pats on the back by established bodies in the public and private sectors, and put the interests of their country, our environment, or the world above their own.

For more about why I am skeptical of Social Impact Bonds see here and here.

07 August 2019

How to make capital gains ethical

A conference nearly three years ago looked at the ethics and morality of Social Impact Bonds. A concise summary of some of the issues discussed raised the question of:
...moral dilemmas that can arise when we place a financial value on social outcomes, and begin to see interventions in the light of the money they can save rather than on their inherent public value. Will it lead to us prioritising certain policy areas simply because they can save us money? Are we giving away too many decisions to unaccountable consultants and investors – and do the service users themselves get a say in any of this? Is it right that investors can gamble on the fortunes, or misfortunes, of others? Social Impact Bonds: are they ethical?, James Ronicle, 28th September 2016
Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) are a non-tradeable version of my original conception: Social Policy Bonds. Tradeability matters more than you might think. As I've explained here and here, when the bonds become tradeable the range of goals that we can target expands greatly, and our time horizons stretch much further into the future. The qualitative effect of a bigger range means that our social and environmental targets can embrace outcomes that a narrower, shorter-term target will exclude. Take for example recidivism rates, targeted by SIBs in the UK and elsewhere. Whereas a SIB regime will reward their reduction, even a large number of such SIBs would do nothing for the long-term health of society as a whole. For a start, narrow, short-term goals increase the likelihood of effective manipulation - a simple example springs to mind: investors in the bonds could subsidise superior legal representation to an offender accused of a new crime. But, more importantly, when we embrace broad, long-term goals, there is no need to prioritise 'certain policy areas simply because they can save us money'. Under a Social Policy Regime there need be no conflict. The policy 'areas' we can prioritise are large enough to include everybody.
It's not so different in other policy areas. SIBs currently target, for instance, academic performance among at-risk three- and four-year olds in Utah, or the number of housing units for the homeless in Massachusetts. Very laudable but, again, apart from these narrow goals being susceptible to crude manipulation (by fiddling test results for instance), they also reward the shifting of resources from untargeted goals to those that will generate short-term gains for bondholders.

This is the key. Social Impact Bonds have to focus on narrow short-term goals that are easily measured. Social Policy Bonds, in contrast, can take a broader, long-term view. They can encompass the goals of society as a whole. Rewards to holders of carefully crafted Social Policy Bonds might still benefit wealthy investors, but only as a by-product of benefiting all of society.

There are bigger possibilities: one of the participants at the above conference asked:
...whether development bonds, where investment is made in developing countries, create a new form of colonialism, as the West profits from interventions in developing countries.
Again, there need be no conflict. Social Policy Bonds targeting, for instance, regional or global conflict, or disaster prevention could benefit both western investors and developing countries. Large capital gains, though widely and understandably viewed with disdain in today's society, don't have to be unethical.

 


For more on this last topic see my previous post. For more on the topic of rewarding people for performing the socially useful function of, for instance, teaching see my blog post here. All my essays on the bonds are accessible from the main Social Policy Bonds site.

01 August 2019

Re-jigging the incentives

George Monbiot writes:
The largest fortunes are now made not through entrepreneurial brilliance but through inheritance, monopoly and rent-seeking: securing exclusive control of crucial assets, such as land and buildings, privatised utilities and intellectual property, and assembling service monopolies such as trading hubs, software and social media platforms, then charging user fees far higher than the costs of production and delivery. In Russia, people who enrich themselves this way are called oligarchs. But this is not a Russian phenomenon, it is a global one.  Corporate power still exists, but today it is overlain by – and is mutating into – oligarchic power. Killer clowns, George Monbiot, 'The Guardian', 26 July
Imagine a political system in which people became wealthy by helping to solve society's problems rather than by the anti-social activities about which Mr Monbiot writes. Human ingenuity and entrepreneurial skills, currently channelled into self-enrichment via destructive or frivolous activities, would be channelled instead into achieving society's goals.

Social Policy Bonds could usher in such a system. The bonds would reward the achievement of targeted goals that are inextricably linked to improved social and environmental well-being.There are many benefits to a Social Policy Bond regime. Efficiency is the main one, as the market for the bonds would ensure that the people who can do most to achieve society's goals do so at the lowest cost. The bonds will always be in the hands of the most cost-effective operators who can out-bid the less efficient investors. Another advantage of the bonds is stability: whereas the best ways of achieving our goals vary over time and according to geography, the goals themselves are consistent, and there is far more consensus about our goals than about the supposed means of achieving them. The bonds would create a stable policy environment, in which long-term goals, including very remote goals such as world peace, could be targeted. Another advantage of the bonds is transparency: clarity of goals should be a first, essential step in policymaking, but too often it's, perhaps deliberately, obscured by the arcane, legalistic tactics beloved by today's policymakers.

These are all valuable benefits. But there's another one, less obvious. Social Policy Bonds would constitute a way of making money that is inextricably bound up with achieving society's goals. A government could therefore choose to tax any gains from holding Social Policy Bonds more lightly than other, similarly lucrative but less socially beneficial, operations. It would then be explicitly recognising that not all profit-making ventures are equal. Some, though they might raise that very flawed indicator and de facto target - GDP -  contribute very little to social or environmental well-being, while others are destructive of both. This advantage of Social Policy Bonds might not seem important compared to the bonds' other pluses, but it could become increasingly significant as society grows more complex, resources more limited and we perforce become more concerned about meaningful outcomes than the short-term goals of big business and politicians.

15 July 2019

The status quo is a tragedy

Tim Harford writes about healthcare in the US:
The US healthcare system is a monument to perverse incentives, unintended consequences and political inertia. It is astonishingly bad — indeed, it’s so astonishingly bad that even people who believe it’s bad don’t appreciate quite how bad it is. ... Reforming American healthcare will require an almighty effort. With politics gridlocked and soaking in lobbyist money, it’s not obvious that the US government is capable of running the kind of healthcare system that works elsewhere — even if Congress decides to try. But try it must, because the status quo is a tragedy. US healthcare is literally killing people, Tim Harford, Financial Times, 13 July
It's not just healthcare. Our political systems are comprised of, and help to sustain, institutions of all kinds that start out as well intended but, almost inevitably, become fossilised. They invest too much, emotionally and financially, in ways of doing things that might have been efficient at one point, but then become outdated as society and technology change. Eventually their overarching raison d'etre becomes that of self perpetuation. They become adept at resisting threats to their survival. In the private sector competition is supposed to keep businesses on their toes, but too often the smaller enterprises are smothered  by big business which, with its pals in government, regulates them out of existence. Nevertheless, there are still parts of the private sector where competition does its work, and creative destruction goes on.

It's much worse in the public sector or, rather, in the provision of social and environmental services, where people have much less information and power than service providers (healthcare) or where competition otherwise cannot operate effectively. The vested interests are government bodies, trade unions, big companies or, more and more these days, NGOs and charities. All have entrenched hierarchies and ways of doing things, and tend to resist changes that threaten their existence. So we get monstrosities like US healthcare, or the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, both of whose corrupt lunacies have been well documented for decades but about which little of significance has been done.

Social Policy Bonds might be the answer. They would inject competition into the solution of our social and environmental problems. They would lead to the creation of new sorts of organisation, comprising protean coalitions whose every activity would be aimed at achieving society's goals with maximum efficiency. They would have incentives to ensure inefficient approaches would be terminated - not, as nowadays, bailed out with eye-watering sums of taxpayers' money in order to save the face of their instigators.

To focus on health specifically: we need to reward the achievement of successful health outcomes, which, for a country, should be a combination of variables, each of which will have to fall into a specified range before the targeted outcome can be deemed achieved. The variables would be likely to include: longevity, Quality Adjusted Life Years, infant mortality and other objective data. Consider how far removed are the incentives in current healthcare systems - not only in the US - from rewarding good health. Today's incentives are, essentially, to screen, test and intervene - whether or not the intervening does any good at all. There's more about the application of the Social Policy Bond concept to health here

More generally, a bond regime would undermine the powerful institutions in the public- or private sector, whose existence is predicated on blocking reform. To give these bodies time to reform, and to shift their goal from self-perpetuation to serving the public, the bonds could be phased in over time, as I describe in chapter 4 of my book (all chapters downloadable free of charge here). Social Policy Bonds, at first sight, seem a radical, even zany, approach to the solution of the problems that we face. The question, though, is whether there's anything better. In health, the environment, nuclear proliferation, violence in poor countries, to take obvious examples, the challenges are huge and urgent, and it would doubtless be difficult to overcome the obstacles to progress. But, as Mr Harford would say: try we must, because the status quo is a tragedy.  

12 July 2019

Targeting economic indicators is a cop-out

Vassilis Serafimakis writes to the London Review of Books, telling us why focusing on one particular economic variable - the fiscal deficit - is misguided:
...Diana Stone notes that ‘Zimbabwe’s fiscal deficit is around 12 per cent of GDP’ and that a country ‘can’t run a deficit that size without stealing from the future’  ... Deficits cannot be assessed in isolation. We need to examine the whole economy, especially productivity, whose prime indicator is the level of employment. And we need to focus on the real aspects of the economy rather than worrying about economic conventions. The whole concept of ‘sound finance’, with its corollaries of ‘fiscal discipline’ and ‘prudent finance,’ all code words for austerity, must be discarded and replaced with functional finance. Japan is the outstanding example of a state that has done this, albeit inconsistently. It has continuously low interest rates, low unemployment, low yet steady growth, and most important, an unmatched standard of living. All this despite the fact that every year the budget hits deficits in excess of 15 per cent of GDP, while Japan’s Treasury has amassed a debt of some 230 per cent. Yet if, geography aside, Japan were to apply for Eurozone membership its application would be rejected outright because the country is in violation of the Eurozone’s deficit and debt limits. This is evidence enough of the folly behind the Eurozone set-​up.... Vassilis Serafimakis, Letters, 'London Review of Books', 4 July 
There's a large and, I think, growing gap, between such measures as fiscal deficits, debt levels, GDP; and social well-being. An increasingly out-of-touch political caste has little knowledge or experience of the world in which live the people they are supposed to represent. So they rely on these economic aggregates for information about how society is doing. Along with many others I've inveighed against GDP or GDP per capita and its de facto targeting by politicians. As well as their inherent deficiencies, such measures as GDP and the fiscal deficit are subjects to Campbell's Law, which tells us that:
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
Which is why I believe we should target outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people: goals that are inextricably bound up with social and environmental well-being. Goals such as better health, universal literacy or, at the global level, regional or world peace. We should be targeting and rewarding the achievement of such goals, rather than abstract entities like deficit reduction or GDP growth. Economic variables are, at best, means to ends. They are increasingly inadequate as such but worse is that they enable politicians to distract us by deflecting our attention to those measures that have improved under their governance, or deteriorated under the governance of the other side.

Social Policy Bonds are a way of channelling the market's incentives and efficiencies into the achievement of our social and environmental goals. That's one of their big advantages. But the other is more fundamental: the bonds require us, as a society, to clarify what are our goals and to come up with some sense of their priority. You would think this would be an essential feature of any democratic political system but no: what we experience today are sound bites, character assassination, personality cults or, as a very poor best: the targeting and manipulation of economic variables that don't really matter and about which none of us really care.

06 July 2019

The JAMES Bond

Cao Honghui writes about a new type of bond that may be about to be issued in Hong Kong. The original Chinese is here; this is from the Google translation:
Inspired by socially functional bonds, the concept of Justice Achievable Market Enabler Savings Bond (JAMES BOND) can be used as a starting point for the financing of infrastructure companies. The justice market savings bond is inspired by the [Social Impact Bond] SIB and can be said to be SIB 2.0. The justice market savings bonds are different from the social function bonds. The justice market savings bonds will have a larger amount of funds, but the expected social benefits will be greater. Justice Market Savings Bond: JAMES BOND, Cao Honghui, Master-Insight.com, 3 July
I can't tell from the translation whether these bonds are actually being issued, nor whether they would be tradeable. Would any reader who understands the Chinese be able to comment? Tradeability is the crucial distinction between the (non-tradeable) Social Impact Bonds currently in issue in about fifteen countries, and the original Social Policy Bond idea. I write about the importance of tradeability here and here.

27 June 2019

'Recruit to deny'

This is what happens when we blindly use badly-thought out metrics:
[M]any of our [ie, the US'] greatest universities have lately adopted an even more egregious new practice—“recruit to deny,” a policy in which schools actively encourage students whom they know will be turned down to apply anyway, despite the waste of time and money and effort and the disappointment that such a process must entail. This seems to be done mostly in order to increase each school’s rejection rate, a figure that plays a key role in where they end up in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of American colleges and universities. What we do in the shadows, Kevin Baker, 'Harper's Magazine', 27 June
I write quite a bit about metrics here, but how are the blog's own metrics doing? Not very well, is the answer. The number of readers looking at this blog daily has dwindled into the single figures. Not many more look at my home page, or access any of the essays, papers, book chapters, linked to thereon. That's according to the (free) analytic tools that I use.

Nevertheless, the non-tradeable version of Social Policy Bonds, about which I've expressed ambivalence, is in the policy mainstream and, largely because of that, I'm hopeful that, in time, the much greater possibilities that the tradeable bonds offer will be discussed and implemented. Until that hope is realised, mainly for my own edification and as a discipline, I will continue to post here and to maintain the SocialGoals.com site.