14 February 2009

Unlikely relationships

[I]n houses with at least one smoker, a mobile-phone purchase led to a 32.6 percent drop in tobacco consumption for each adult - the equivalent of an entire pack each month. 'The Lesser Evil', the Atlantic, October 2008 (page 24)
Exploring unlikely relationships is something that bureaucracies don't do very well. Who would have thought that one way of making people healthier would be to encourage the purchase of cellphones? More to the point, who has the incentives to investigate and exploit such relationships? Certainly nobody working for a large organization in the public sector, and probably nobody in a large private sector organization either. Why rock the boat? Under a Social Policy Bond regime targeting broad indicators of societal health people would be motivated to explore all sorts of new relationships. They might, for instance, find that the most cost-effective ways of increasing longevity include subsidising taxis for youths emerging from nightclubs after 2am; or diverting subsidies away from industrial agriculture and into organic farming; or dishing out cellphones to smokers.... The point is that under the current system there are too few incentives to initiate projects with potentially high rewards that might fail; it's difficult to terminate failed projects under the current system. But this year, the 200th anniversary, we ought to remember that the evolutionary fitness of a species requires diversity and adaptation. It's the same with policies.

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