27 September 2011

Policy as if outcomes are irrelevant

More from Mark Steyn:
... both the [US] Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) were set up by a Congress that didn’t identify a single policy goal for these agencies and “provided no standards whatsoever” for their conduct. So they made it up as they went along. Where do you go to vote out the CPSC or OSHA? After America, page 85
Gestures approved by spin doctors, jobs for cronies, self-delusion: all these are key policy drivers under the current system. Outcomes? Nobody's very interested. Nobody, apart from paid lobbyists, even bothers to follow policymaking, so arcane are the debates, and so removed is our political caste from the people they are supposed to represent (and, as is becoming clear, from reality itself).

A Social Policy Bond regime would at the very beginning refocus attention on the question: what is government for? Policymaking would be about defining and prioritising targeted goals - goals that would be meaningful to ordinary people. That means targeting not organisational structures or funding, not appearances or gestures, but outcomes like reduced unemployment, a cleaner environment, low crime rates.... Things that matter to citizens, in other words. That would be a stark contrast to today's policymaking circus.

The economy's ok; shame about well-being

From the Economist:
The alarm [in the developed countries] over the threat to jobs from India and China echoes the anxiety about Japan’s rise in the 1970s and 1980s. America’s economy has survived the shake-up of its steel, electronics and car industries, as have other rich countries. Exporting Jobs, survey of the world economy, 'the Economist', 24 September
If we accept that the "economy" has indeed been able to "survive" then, whatever the "economy" is, it can't have much to do with employment, confidence, social cohesion or indeed anything that correlates with the well-being of the human population. Sadly our leaders are hypnotised by "the economy" and its well-being. They implicitly target things like average GDP per capita, regardless of how it's distributed and the consequences for the physical and social environment. I think we'd all benefit if, instead of fixating on "the economy", we targeted instead outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people.

21 September 2011

Policy: for specialists only

One of the advantages of Social Policy Bonds is that they express policy in terms of meaningful outcomes. This means, as I said in my previous post, that the public can participate in the policymaking process. The benefits of this, in terms of greater public buy-in, are incalculable. Sadly, the current system is moving yet further in the opposite direction. In After America Mark Steyn discusses the US health care debate:
Through all the interminable health-care “debates” of Obama’s first year, did you read any of the proposed plans? Of course not. They’re huge and turgid and indigestible. Unless you’re a health-care lobbyist, a health-care think-tanker, a health-care correspondent, or some other fellow who’s paid directly or indirectly to plough through this stuff, why bother? None of the senators whose names are on the bills ever read ’em; why should you? (page 52)
Exactly so. Any relationship between what you would read and an outcome meaningful to you would be purely coincidental. Policy debate nowadays focusses almost exclusively on institutional structures, funding arrangements, legalisms, with some gestures and symbolic language thrown in.

19 September 2011

All over the place

With economics as with society and the environment, policymakers are confused. Their only consistent objective seems to be to hang on to power. On issue after issue, whether it's climate change, unemployment, crime or any social or environmental problem, policymakers will choose appearance over reality; the continuation of current policies beyond the point when they become destructive; the placating of powerful interest groups, especially donors to their political party; and the substitution of Mickey Mouse micro-objectives (agreements signed, funding allocated, pamphlets produced) for meaningful outcomes for ordinary people. There need be no conspiracy. Policymakers are simply too busy or too pre-occupied with the short term to consider long-term goals. Kicking the can down the road has become the default mode of operation. Not rocking the boat has become the default, over-arching political objective.

We need to reconnect policymakers with the people they are supposed to represent. The current policymaking mechanism, focused as it is on legislation, arcane discussions about institutional structures and funding, sound-bites and personality, serves only to widen the gap between the government and the people.

One way of bridging that gap might be for all of us to think in terms of the outcomes we want to see from policy, rather than supposed means of achieving them. At the very highest level objectives such as "economic growth" have now become irrelevant to, or even in conflict with, the aspirations of ordinary people. On a crowded planet, with ever more complex social arrangements, something as vague as GDP per capita correlates very little with human well-being. Why not, then target more directly things that really matter: physical and mental health, low crime rates, universal literacy, a cleaner environment? That is what a Social Policy Regime would look like. A few broad - negotiated - social and environmental goals, to which all government-financed activities would be subordinated. People can understand objectives, even if we (those of us who aren't paid lobbyists) are turned off by legal and political processes. Under a bond regime we could engage with policymaking and, crucially, feel that our voices have been heard. Such a policymaking system would, I think, be not only more efficient than the current, failing, mechanism, but also would generate buy-in from the public; something that is essential if we are goiing to solve the urgent, critical social and environmental problems that we face.

06 September 2011

Propping up interest groups: everyone loses

John Kay, explaining the current financial crisis, writes:
The subtle but important distinction between policies that support a market economy and those that support the interests of established large firms was not widely appreciated by policy makers on either right or left. A good crisis gone to waste, 30 August
Governments make this mistake often: they identify the success of the economy with that of large corporations - which often just happen to be big contributors to their party funds. Failing corporations, just like failed policies, are not allowed to expire, but are instead propped up with taxpayer funds. The 'creative destruction' on which our economic system depends, doesn't operate: instead government policy takes over from market discipline. Diversity goes and, with it, the ability of our political and economic system to adapt. What we are seeing now: social, political, evironmental and economic crisis, is largely a result of government propping up special interest groups. The short-term beneficiaries are the bosses of big corporations and the visionless politicians who buy them off. The losers are...well...everybody else.

We urgently need to move toward a system that rewards favourable outcomes. Not, as under the current system, those who say they're going to deliver them or who may have delivered those outcomes in the past, but cannot efficiently do so now. That's where a Social Policy Bond regime could help. Only those who actually and efficiently achieve targeted social and environmental outcomes would be rewarded. In stark contrast with the current system their identity would be entirely subordinated to their efficiency and effectiveness.

01 September 2011

Subsidising the rich

Or rather, transferring resources from the poor (and the environment) to the wealthier members of society.
The richest 10 per cent of the population receive four times as much public spending on transport as the poorest 10 per cent. Source
It's the usual fare: policy as if meaningful outcomes for ordinary people don't matter.