23 January 2014

Arguments on both sides

There are two things you can always say if having dosed off in a meeting at work and you're nudged awake to find people staring at you, waiting for your contribution. One is "it's not black or white, it's a continuum". The other is "there are arguments on both sides".

Reading about subjects like low-carb diets, or medications intended to treat psychiatric conditions of, of course, climate change, I'm struck not so much by the controversies and seemingly valid arguments on both sides of fundamental questions, but by the absence of systems that would impartially encourage accurate, definitive resolution of the fundamental problems. So much about the way we deal with major challenges is now about defending positions, rather than looking for truth. One would hope that the arc of history combined with Darwinian processes would tend toward the settling of arguments as to whether, say, low-carb diets are helpful or harmful. We often assume that something like the scientific paradigm will inevitably resolve these issues. Perhaps it will, but there are problems with this. First, that the defending of entrenched, but harmful, wrong positions adds to the sum of human misery, perhaps on a large scale over a long time. Second, that we may reach tipping points, beyond which even if the right side eventually wins the argument against entrenched opposition, it's too late or costly to change the rate at which the damage is being done.

If there is significant wealth or status - individual or collective - or control at stake, we can be sure that there will be people virulently defending at least two sides of a policy discussion. Sometimes these sides and their biases are easy to identify: big pharma, big oil. Sometimes not: government agencies, non-governmental organizations of every sort. In many instances these bodies will genuinely believe in their case, in others, they won't.

But it doesn't really matter. The point is that, for many policy decisions, the stakes for society are too high for the debate to be determined by interest groups or ideologues, and their paid mouthpieces.We need some way of making policy that is independent of vested interests.

That's where focusing on outcomes - rather than supposed means of achieving them - becomes important. Under a Social Policy Bond regime, policymakers wouldn't start out weighing the arguments for, or against, say, doing something about climate change or whether people should eat more fat and less sugar. They would instead determine which broad outcomes we want to see. And these outcomes would be goals that are meaningful to ordinary citizens, who could therefore participate in the policymaking process. It would be up to bondholders to work out whether the supposed means of achieving society's goals entail favouring one interest group or another, or neither. Their motivation would be to achieve society's targeted goal at minimum cost and as quickly as possible. The most efficient bondholders will be rewarded the most, and it is they, acting in their own self-interest to establish as best they can, impartially, the actual scientific relationships that will advance them most cost-effectively on the road to maximising not only their own profits, but also society's well-being. Impartiality and truth-seeking, motivation and efficiency: these are all built into the very structure of a Social Policy Bond regime.

Unfortunately, the lack of uptake of the Social Policy Bond principle, after it has been in the public arena for 25 years, could be interpreted as a symptom of the same problem: the power of vested interests to resist anything that could threaten their position.

18 January 2014

GDP and war

Theordore Dalrymple puts it succinctly:
An increased GDP, however distributed, is perfectly compatible with a deteriorated, even much deteriorated, way of life: and, presumably, a lowering of GDP is compatible with an improved, even a much improved, way of life. Of GDP and happiness, 'Library of Law and Liberty', 2 January
Unfortunately, in the absence of any coherent other targets, increasing Gross Domestic Product (or GDP per capita) become the de facto objective of most democratic governments.  But, as an end in itself, GDP has numerous flaws. Its targeting institutionalises our confusion between ends and means. Economic growth should not be end in itself. At best, it is a means towards certain ends. Growth in GDP implies only a growth in economic activity. It does not distinguish between helpful and harmful economic activity. It puts no value on any activity that bypasses the monetary economy. So it ignores leisure time, the environment, crime, health, and other contributors to well-being that are meaningful, or even essential, to natural persons.

We urgently need goals that are far less randomly tied to human and environmental well-being. I make some tentative suggestions in my book and on SocialGoals.com. Hand-in-hand with meaningful targets goes a sensible way of achieving them. Our current systems are failing in both respects, and the failures are becoming too spectacular to ignore for much longer. In these increasingly dire circumstances, Social Policy Bonds could be an answer. Under a bond regime, policymaking would be something with which ordinary people could engage. The bonds would target meaningful goals, with which we could all identify. These goals would be ends - targets inextricably linked to well-being - rather than real or supposed means towards achieving them. The bonds would inject the market's incentives and efficiencies into the achievement of our goals. And because they reward the achievement of our goals, rather than activities, they do not rely on our knowing how our ends are to be achieved or who will achieve them. This means that we can target problems, like war, that we have no idea (yet) how to solve.

One thing seems certain: however remote a World Peace Bond regime seems now, a world without war within our current, corrupt, haphazard system, is even less likely.

04 January 2014

We need to talk about outcomes. Oh, and the future of this blog.

Discussing the 'intellectual viability' of TED talks, Benjamin Bratton concludes: 
At a societal level, the bottom line is if we invest in things that make us feel good but which don't work, and don't invest in things that don't make us feel good but which may solve problems, then our fate is that it will just get harder to feel good about not solving problems. We need to talk about TED, Benjamin Bratton, 'The Guardian', 30 December
Exactly. To put it another way: we need to talk about outcomes.... Rather than how advocates for particular policies perform, or institutional structures, or glamorous projects, or the short-term financial interests of private- and public-sector agencies. Unfortunately our entire political system, and the complexity of society, have allowed policymakers to get away with looking after the interests of corporations and other favoured bodies, rather than the ordinary people they are supposed to represent.

Social Policy Bonds would see policymaking start from first principles: what do we actually want to achieve?, and then reward people for actually achieving our goals, rather than merely for turning up to work for organizations whose names suggest they want to achieve these goals but are far more concerned with their own self-perpetuation.
Is there anyone actually out there? This blog has been going for nine years now, and recent months have seen zero comments posted. Viewer numbers according to Google rarely go into three figures and Social Policy Bonds, though they have had some media attention in recent years, aren't really advancing in ways that encourage me to continue with this blog. That said, perhaps there are readers via RSS or on mobile platforms whose views don't register with Google. If you have an opinion on the future of this blog one way or the other, I'd be grateful if you get in touch. You can email me directly and pseudonymously if you prefer, via the links on this page: http://socialgoals.com/blog-contact-me.html. Thanks.