03 March 2014

Place your bets

What is government for? Obviously, it's for distributing taxpayer funds to those who are most in need:
The much-anticipated first film of “The Hobbit” trilogy [could] gross about $3 billion. So how much taxpayer money, would you guess, did Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. need to produce the films based on the J.R.R. Tolkien book? The answer is zero. The studios are investment companies, and the films are almost certain to be immensely profitable. But now you aren’t thinking like a studio. The real question is: How much taxpayer money can Warner Bros. demand from the government of New Zealand to keep production there (rather than, say, in Australia or the Czech Republic)? That answer turns out to be about $120 million, plus the revision of New Zealand’s labor laws to forbid collective bargaining among film-production contractors, plus the passage of three-strikes Internet-disconnection laws for online copyright infringement, plus enthusiastic and, it turns out, illegal cooperation in the shutdown of the pirate-friendly digital storage site Megaupload and the arrest of its owner, Kim Dotcom. Kill the Hobbit Subsidies to Save Regular Earth, Joe Karaganis, 'Bloomberg View', 4 December 2012

The Government is talking up lavishing taxpayers' dollars on Avatar sequels - but the Treasury has already panned the spending as a turkey. As part of the deal announced yesterday by Prime Minister John Key, two fellow ministers and Avatar director James Cameron, the movies' producers will get at least $125 million in taxpayers' money in return for spending at least $500m making the films in New Zealand. Critical Eye on Avatar Deal, Ben Heather, 17 December 2013
This is government as an investment company: thinking it knows how best to gamble with other people's money. Or it's a desperate attempt by politicians to associate themselves with something glamorous, at the expense of the millions of people who aren't as photogenic, so must pay for government and its whimsical bets. Either way, doling out millions to rich corporations is irresponsible at best, corrupt at worst. Governments can get away with this because they don't formulate policy in terms of outcomes. In our currently policymaking environment it's quite acceptable for politicians to act on the basis that, for instance, cutting back greenhouse gases will solve the climate change problem, or that building more roads will boost economic growth or, indeed, that boosting economic growth will enhance people's well-being.

The days when easily identifiable cause-effect relationships were significant enough to drive policy effectively and efficiently are gone. Society is too complex, the time lags too great, the linkages too murky, for that to work any longer. A better alternative would be to target outcomes, and let motivated people work out how best to achieve them, through adaptive, diverse approaches. A Social Policy Bond would do this and, as well, inject the market's incentives and efficiencies into every stage of every such approach.

For more details, see the SocialGoals.com website which, if you haven't been there recently, has been polished a bit, and now includes, on this page, links to pdf files of all the chapters in my book. 

I suppose things could be worse. Well, they are worse: as well as distributing scarce funds from the poor to the rich, government takes from taxpayers to subsidise the destruction of our environment. It makes our involuntary donations to Warner Brothers look like enlightened policy:
The UN Development Programme says rich countries should switch some of the staggering $35 billion a year they spend subsidising fishing on the high seas (through things like cheap fuel and vessel-buy-back programmes) to creating marine reserves—protected areas like national parks. In deep water, 'The Economist', 22 February (subscription)

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