10 July 2006

What's good about the status quo?

A Social Policy Bond regime would contract out the achievement of social and environmental objectives to the private sector by issuing tradeable bonds redeemable when specified goals have been achieved. The bonds could help meet new global and national challenges, such as climate change or crime reduction, but they should also specifically target the maintenance of some aspects of the status quo. Peace within secure borders, freedoms to live under fair laws, fair administration of justice...these are all of immense value - but tricky to define. Unfortunately, much like 'the environment' or 'quiet' or 'social cohesion' they tend for that reason to be taken as given by policymakers, and so exploited, until they are in such a parlous state that they can no longer be ignored.

Could these desirable features of our current way of life be targeted explicitly? It's an important question, worth posing even if we were not contemplating the issue of Social Policy Bonds targeting, for example, world peace. Why? Because many important defences against social or environmental disaster appear to be eroding. We face catastrophic risks arising from climate change and nuclear proliferation, but it's difficult not only to see progress being made, but also to conceive of a way of measuring whether we are moving towards or away from achieving our goals. So how to specify our goals and quantify progress towards them is not just an abstract question.

If we assume that it is worth channeling scarce resources into retaining some degree of climate stability then under a Climate Stability Bond regime, we should have explicitly to quantify climate stability, in such a way that maintaining (or increasing) it can be explictly and objectively verified. This sounds very difficult, and indeed it is, but exactly the same difficulties apply when attempting to monitor the success or otherwise of alternative ways of preventing or mitigating climate change, including the Kyoto agreement to limit anthropogenic emissions of greeenhouse gases.

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