26 February 2013

Corridors are not wards

Theodore Dalrymple writes:
I remember a manager in the hospital in which I worked before my retirement, with no medical or even nursing qualifications, prowling the wards to look for patients who could be hurried home so that beds would become available for patients who would otherwise break the government's four-hour rule, that is to say the rule that no patient should wait more than four hours after the decision to admit him had been taken. The concern that patients should not have to wait for more than four hours was not for their sake, of course, but merely so that the central government could claim that it was improving services, and so that the hospital could claim to have met its target. In the event the target was met by the simple expedient of redesignating hospital corridors as wards, satisfactory all round - except for the patients, of course. A healthcare system suffocated by bureaucrats, Theodore Dalrymple, 'Standpoint' (online only), Jan/Feb
The well-being of a large, complex society, is inevitably going to mean giving priority to numerical indicators. In the absence of meaningful, broad indicators of well-being, we instead default to the targeting of deeply flawed accountancy measures (like Gross Domestic Product) and a plethora of meaningless micro-targets, like those about which Mr Dalrymple writes. It's not working.

A Social Policy Bond regime would bring some much-needed clarity to the hugely important task of defining, and prioritising, the essential elements of societal well-being. We could all participate in such an exercise. We all understand outcomes, and we can all have an opinion about which broad social and environmental outcomes are the most important to ourselves and society. That's a stark contrast with the current policymaking system, which in most countries is now largely under the control of the few interest groups who can afford to pay specialists to understand, manipulate and subvert the democratic process in their favour.

16 February 2013

Galactic rhetoric

Mark Steyn, quoting President Obama, writes: 
"Let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years." What does that even mean? How would you even know when you've accomplished that "goal"? What percentage of energy used by my home and business is "wasted"? In what sense? Who says? Who determines that? Is it 37 percent? 23 percent? So we're going to cut it down to 18.5 percent or 11.5 percent by 2033, is that the "goal"? Magical Fairyland budgeting, 16 February
Our political discourse is infested with these grandiose-sounding, but meaningless 'goals'. Their purpose is simple: to deceive. As Mr Steyn points out they are meaningless to ordinary people and unverifiable by design. Politicians can get away with such pronouncements only because we, the voters, are not encouraged to think in terms of outcomes. Policymaking has become a public relations exercise coupled to arcane legalistic debates about funding arrangements and institutional structures. Only vested interests and their paid lobbyists can stomach engagement with the real purpose of policymaking. The rest of us have to be content with the high-flown vapid rhetoric of the front men.

There is another way. Social Policy Bonds would recast policymaking in terms of outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people. Instead of Mickey Mouse micro-targets that lose all meaning when we focus on them, a bond regime would agree on broad social and environmental outcomes, and reward people who achieve them. Because these outcomes would be meaningful and quantifiable, a wider public could engage with the policymaking process - an end in itself as well as a means toward securing more buy-in. Take the energy 'goal' that President Obama is talking about in the quote above: under a bond regime we'd ask ourselves, and have to ask ourselves: what do we really want? Is it a reduction in wasted energy? A reduction in wasted fossil fuel energy? A reduction in fossil energy use per unit GDP? Perhaps it would be better to target for reduction the negative impacts of energy use? These are questions which should be the subject of legitimate debate by all of us and under a bond regime they would be. Under the current system they aren't. Instead we are served up with a baleful combination of galactic-sounding rhetoric dreamed up by Public Relations experts, and real-world policies designed by and for entrenched interest groups. Any correlation with policies that benefit ordinary people is entirely coincidental.

15 February 2013

Overcentralisation and the commons

The Archdruid has it right: 
The more distance between the managers and the commons they manage, the more likely failure becomes, because two factors essential to successful management simply aren’t there. The first of them is immediate access to information about how management policies are working, or not working, so that those policies can be adjusted immediately if they go wrong; the second is a personal stake in the outcome, so that the managers have the motivation to recognize when a mistake has been made, rather than allowing the psychology of previous investment to seduce them into pursuing a failed policy right into the ground. Those two factors don’t function in an overcentralized system. The center cannot hold, 'The Archdruid Report', 6 February
Overcentralisation is a difficult problem to solve under the current ...overcentralised regime. It's not at all obvious when and how to intervene to stop it happening, nor who should do so (as some of the commenters on the Archdruid's post say). Perhaps Social Policy Bonds can solve the problem: instead of trying to work out the optimal level of centralisation for any social or environmental intervention, it would seem simpler to target a specific outcome, reward the most efficient ways of achieving it, and let the market for the bonds determine who makes decisions and at what level of aggregation. A bond regime would encourage diverse, adaptive solutions of that an overcentralised bureaucracy cannot - and would be likely to see as a threat. In short, Social Policy Bonds would deal with the problem of overcentralisation quite neatly.

05 February 2013

Gun deaths: closing the gap

"Twenty tiny coffins have again put the NRA [National Rifle Association] on the defensive", Tim Dickinson writes: 
In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre ... public support of new gun-control laws is overwhelming. Today, 92 percent of the country support background checks for gun buyers, and 63 percent support limiting the capacity of gun magazines. The NRA vs America, 'Rolling Stone' dated 14 February
How does it happen in a democracy that policy is so different from the interests of ordinary people? Mr Dickinson supplies the answer:

Like every other element of today's modern conservative machinery, the NRA works in the background to expand corporate power – while pretending in public to advance the interests of the little guy. The NRA continues to put forward its members as the face of the organization. But dues from members bring in less than half of the association's yearly expenses....
I'd quibble only with the word 'conservative': it seems to me that policymakers of all kinds are essentially beholden to broadly defined corporate interests, which are often wildly different from those of the people they claim to represent. Our policymaking process is so opaque, so arcane and long-winded, that only those with plenty of cash can afford to pay someone to follow and influence it. The rest of us - normal people, that is, the 92 percent to whom Mr Dickinson refers - have to  be satisfied with vague noble-sounding declarations of intent. It's an almost inevitably corrupt process, and it's not working.

One way of closing the gap between policymakers and ordinary people would be to focus exclusively on outcomes, rather than the supposed means of achieving them. That would happen under a Social Policy Bond regime. Instead of drawing esoteric and futile legislative distinctions between types of gun or gun magazines, we would issue Gun Death Control Bonds that would reward what we actually want to achieve: a massive reduction in the number of gun deaths. Investors in the bonds would find their own ways of reducing gun deaths. They would have incentives to explore, investigate and implement a diverse array of approaches, which could include lobbying for regulatory change, but could also include such ideas as subsidising biometric controls on guns or gun cabinets; showing of broadcasts showing the benefits of gun-free societies; setting up youth clubs in the poorest parts of inner cities; or any of a vast array of other approaches that could and should be tried rather than resign ourselves to an annual death toll in the US of 32000 (pdf) or more.

The current policymaking process, in gun control as in everything else, works in favour of large organizations, be they corporations, trade unions, religious bodies or government agencies. These organizations have interests that at best differ from, and at worst conflict with, those of ordinary people. Expressing policy goals in terms of meaningful  outcomes, as with Social Policy Bonds, is one powerful way of getting people to take an interest in the policies that are being made in our name.

02 February 2013

Betting against extinction?

George Monbiot writes:

The gambling company Ladbrokes has been offering odds on the conservation status of various fish species. Until last night it was taking bets on mackerel; recently it has encouraged people to punt on the survival prospects of stocks of yellow fin tuna, swordfish and haddock. You can, if you wish, gamble on extinction. Betting on extinction, 1 February
The article is upsetting to read, though hardly surprising, but I will point out one unlikely potential plus. Suppose a group of wealthy non-governmental organizations, philanthropists and concerned members of the public got together and gambled against extinction? If the odds were decent and they raised a large enough bet then...

Then ...we would have, in effect, a Social Policy Bond which would pay up the specified fish species did not become extinct. The bettors would have an incentive not just to wait passively and watch what happens to the fish, but actively to finance projects that would keep the species going. Such projects could tackle the problem of over-fishing with far more vigour and success than the current shambolic system. The bettors could lobby governments for more effective controls; they could bribe fishers to take early retirement, or train them to do something else. They could produce educational videos aimed at convincing consumers and children about the benefits of alternative sources of protein. Unlike the current system, the bettors would be strongly motivated not just to make reassuring but vapid gestures in the right direction, but actually to do something to combat species extinction.