27 September 2010

Don't watch this space...

...well, not too avidly anyway.

My 800th post, so time once again to look at where Social Policy Bonds are heading. The answer is a little disheartening: nowhere. At least, not that I'm aware of. More dispiriting still, the distance between ordinary people and the politicians who are supposed (in the democracies) to represent them appears to be growing wider. But what about the Tea Party movement? Isn't that a genuine grass-roots, bottom-up, closing-the-gap, trend to be welcomed? At first sight, perhaps. But its funding sources raise suspicions and, more important (to me) is that it seems less interested in outcomes and more interested in the same distractions that bedevil conventional politics; foremost among them personality and ideology.

Politicians are becoming a class apart, sharing few of the concerns of their constituents. Corporations, and especially the biggest corporations, are ever more influential in determining policy. Natural persons view politicians with disdain; politics with indifference, cynicism or despair. A realignment, along the lines of Social Policy Bonds, whereby government targets outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people cannot come soon enough.

21 September 2010

What did they expect?

An analysis published a few days ago by the campaigning group Sandbag estimates the amount of carbon that will have been saved by the end of the second phase of the EU's emissions trading system, in 2012; after the hopeless failure of the scheme's first phase we were promised that the real carbon cuts would start to bite between 2008 and 2012. So how much carbon will it save by then? Less than one third of 1%. Source
Climate change might be our most urgent environmental challenge. Or it might not. It might lead to catastrophic changes in weather patterns around the world, threatening millions of those people who are least able to adapt. Or it might not.

Our policymaking system doesn't deal well with such uncertainty. It's in most policymakers' interests to delay significant action until it becomes impossible to ignore the consequences of doing so. In similar policy areas, perhaps in most, that isn't too disastrous a policy. But there are occasions when the scale of the consequent disaster is immense.

In all these years of discussion about climate change, I haven't been persuaded that there's anything more likely to meet the climate challenge effectively than Climate Stability Bonds. Under a bond regime, the private sector would bear the consequences of over- or under-estimating the severity of the problem. And they would do so adaptively. That contrasts with the current approach, whereby policymakers employ a limited number of experts using today's science in an attempt to grapple with tomorrow's events - at a time when our knowledge of the causes and consequences of climate change is small, but expanding at a prodigious rate.

It's no wonder then that, perhaps at the unconscious level, our policymakers have decided to do nothing, other than engage in bureaucratic displacement activity. There's an unknowable, but non-zero, probability that we shall get lucky, and that this approach will prove to have been wise; but we can know that only in retrospect. And even if that were to be the case, Climate Stability Bonds, because of the way they work, would still have functioned as an insurance policy. One that could have a massive positive payoff, and one that in any event would be no more costly than the pointless rituals that signify the current way of pretending to deal with the problem.

20 September 2010

Incentives for peace

...I hear two of the wisest Israelis I know say quietly that, against all odds, these peace talks will succeed, because "we are all so tired, so weary for peace", then the Ararat test is the one to set. Can Jews and Arabs opt to forget en masse? When misery is a legacy, Peter Preston, 19 September
In truth, we don't really know whether tiredness - or forgetting, for that matter - lead to peace. Society is so complex, there are bound to be occasions when either condition could contribute to war. You might just as easily find an Israeli or Arab say "we are all so tired, so weary of being persecuted by the other side...". Which is not a gloomy hypothesis: it suggests that peace can break out at any time, regardless of expectations or the views of commentators or the opinions of political leaders.

But incentives matter, and the dice are still loaded in favour of protracted Middle East conflict. Entire bureaucracies and career pathways for ambitious politicians, arms companies and men (generally) of so-called religion depend depend on this and other conflicts continuing into the indefinite future. These people aren't not necessarily evil. They, for the most part, didn't deliberately or even consciously perpetuate the conflict or the conditions that keep it going. But they do depend on its continuing.

And that's why the Social Policy Bond principle can break the circle. The politicians, the generals, the men with beards and countless others are reacting rationally to the incentives on offer. Those incentives are geared toward perpetuating conflict, and not only in the Middle East. Changing these incentives so that peace is rewarded instead of penalised could change everything. And a bond regime could do that. The backers of Middle East Peace Bonds don't need to work out who or what is responsible for the conflict; they don't need to devise road maps or put their livelihoods (or lives) on the line. All they need to do is to define the sort of peace they want to see, and pump as much of their own and other people's money into redeeming the bonds once their peace target has been achieved and sustained. It would be up to investors in the bonds to work out the most effective and efficient ways of reaching that target. They would probably deploy a diverse range of approaches; they would have incentives to explore, implement and adapt the more promising of these, and to terminate the failures. The bonds' backers would be recasting the incentives to encourage peace making, and if there were sufficient funds behind them, there's no reason why they would not succeed.

People casually talk about conflicts that are 'intractable'. I say, read up about the 300-year conflict between England and Scotland, then take a look at the Anglo-Scottish border. It's pretty quiet these days.

14 September 2010

What drives policy?

Sometimes rationality takes a back seat:
Based on surveys ...the top five worries of parents are, in order:

1. Kidnapping
2. School snipers
3. Terrorists
4. Dangerous strangers
5. Drugs

But how do children really get hurt or killed?

1. Car accidents
2. Homicide (usually committed by a person who knows the child, not a stranger)
3. Abuse
4. Suicide
5. Drowning

Quoted by Bruce Schneier, orignally from NPR
Unfortunately, policy is often made on the basis of public perception, rather than a cool, rational appraisal of the facts. It's a widespread problem:

…policies are often adopted on the basis of less careful analysis than their importance warrants, leaving wide room for mistakes and misperceptions. Forces of knowledge destruction are often stronger than those favoring knowledge creation. Hence states have an inherent tendency toward primitive thought, and the conduct of public affairs is often polluted by myth, misinformation, and flimsy analysis. Source (pdf)

Social Policy Bonds could make a difference here. We react to events impulsively and irrationally but we do so for a reason: generally, to return to the status quo ante. Often, in our irrationality, we overreact. 'Too much, too late', is the common, and destructive, impulse. A bond regime, in contrast, would supply incentives to achieve the same goal, but more rationally. So, for instance, if our goal is to minimize the dangers to children, we could issue Social Policy Bonds that would aim to reduce the numbers of people dying or suffering serious injury, from any cause, before the age of 18. This goal would be stable over time, despite events that in today's environment would sway politicians and lead to irrational policy. But at the same time, investors in the bonds would have incentives to react rationally and efficiently to genuine changes in the number and severity of threats to children.

09 September 2010

The American ruling class

Today, few speak well of the [American] ruling class. Not only has it burgeoned in size and pretense, but it also has undertaken wars it has not won, presided over a declining economy and mushrooming debt, made life more expensive, raised taxes, and talked down to the American people. Americans' conviction that the ruling class is as hostile as it is incompetent has solidified. The polls tell us that only about a fifth of Americans trust the government to do the right thing. The rest expect that it will do more harm than good and are no longer afraid to say so. America's Ruling Class -- And the Perils of Revolution, by Angelo M. Codevilla, 'The American Spectator', July-August
Even years after policies have been implemented, it's often difficult to know whether they were right or wrong. For that reason alone, public buy-in is increasingly necessary, as society becomes still more complex and interdependent. One reason such buy-in is difficult to bring about in today's policymaking environment is the casting of policy in terms of activities, lofty but vague ideals, spending patterns, and arcane legislative decisions. It's difficult for ordinary people to understand and follow the policymaking process.

Social Policy Bonds could help generate more public participation and more buy-in. Their starting point is the targeting of outcomes that are meaningful to natural persons - as distinct from abstractions like corporate profits, or 'the economy'. Discussion would centre on these outcomes, their costs and relative priority.

It's dangerous, I think, when people become feel so alienated from the political class that we become cynical or despairing. Even sound, sensible policies then become objects of suspicion. Buy-in to crucial policy decisions, in times such as these, is not a luxury. It's a necessity and one that the current system is failing to provide.

04 September 2010

I estimated that the subsidy for off-street parking [in the US] in 2002 was between $127 billion and $374 billion, or between 1.2 percent and 3.6 percent of the gross domestic product. In comparison, in 2002 the federal government spent $231 billion for Medicare and $349 billion for national defense. Donald Shoup, Shoup to O’Toole: The Market for Parking Is Anything But Free, 1 September
How do we get ourselves into this sort of mess? Bureaucracy and the big corporations have their own agenda. When it comes to parking, it takes the form of mandated parking spaces for new buildings, residential and commercial. To the vast majority of us who are turned off by the whole policymaking process, minimum parking requirements sound sensible, at first hearing. (So too, did subsidies to 'family' farms, many decades ago.) The end result is the apotheosis of the car; subsidies from the poor (who have no, or minimal access, to cars) to the rich, and an aesthetic and environmental calamity.

One thing that outcome-based policy would do right from the start is bring into question such superficially appealing notions as minimum parking requirements. By focusing on ends, rather than means, Social Policy Bonds would lead to a total reappraisal of transport and town planning policy - and one in which ordinary people could participate. Is easy transport a means to an end, or an end in itself? What exactly are town planners trying to achieve? Are ordinary people consulted? Perhaps we'd all be better off if government at all levels were to target the minimal well-being of all its citizens rather than (inadvertently, perhaps, and surreptitiously, almost always) the agenda of big corporations.

03 September 2010

Through failure to success

If you want to be more successful, increase your failure rate. Attributed to Thomas Watson, founder of IBM
We can probably all attest to the wisdom of that dictum. The problem, as I see it, is that with highly centralised government and huge corporations, we are creating a policy environment that eliminates the diversity that gives rise to success through repeated experimentation and adaptation. Decisions in policy areas such as the environment or finance are taken at such a high level of aggregation that there is no realistic chance of comeback if they fail. Government favours the uniform approach, and big corporations can attribute much of their size to their ruthless elimination of competition - in defiance of their much-lauded 'market forces' - with the full connivance of government. The entities that dictate how our ever-smaller planet shall be run now are so large that we can't afford an increase in the failure rate.

We need to revert to an environment in which failure can not only be tolerated, but can perform its necessary function of generating improved policy. Social Policy Bonds are one possibility. Under a bond regime decisions could still be taken with the aim of improving outcomes at the global level. But, unlike under the current system, the bonds would stimulate the exploration, implementation and refinement of diverse solutions. By contracting out the achievement of broad social and environmental outcomes to the private sector, the bonds would encourage diverse approaches, many of which would fail to be efficient and effective solutions to our social problems. Et voila: an increased failure rate!