26 February 2015


The [UK] government’s health policy reached new levels of absurdity last October, when it was announced that GPs would be paid £55 for every diagnosis of dementia they could enter in a patient’s notes. Cash for Diagnoses, Gavin Francis, 'London Review of Books' dated 5 March

I'm convinced policymakers have no idea how to specify societal goals. They don't seem to realize that goals that are narrow and short term can, and most likely will, conflict with those that are broad and long term. So it is with the nonsense described by Mr Francis. From where might the initiative for such incentive payments arise? Mr Francis points the finger:

This debacle is just the latest example of a medical culture, promoted by successive governments over the last twenty years, that rewards over-diagnosis and the prescription of drugs over personalised, professional care.
Our governments seem incapable of looking after society's interests. They seem to think that doing what they can to meet the demands of the most powerful lobby groups, including government agencies, is equivalent to looking after the interests of all their citizens. It isn't. 

A Social Policy Bond regime would be quite different. It would target and reward meaningful improvements in the health of the entire population. It would take a long-term view, and could do so because it would focus exclusively on its target outcomes. It would reward the people who achieve our health goals whoever they are and however they do so. For more on how the Social Policy Bond principle could be applied to health click here.

23 February 2015

Two sorts of self-interest

If men were actuated by self-interest, which they are not — except in the case of a few saints — the whole human race would cooperate. There would be no more wars, no more armies, no more navies, no more atom bomb. Bertrand Russell, What Desires Are Politically Important?, 1950
Our current policymaking system gives undue priority to emotion, whim, and concerns that make for effective television footage. So our politicians give arguably too little attention to huge, important challenges that move too slowly for television, such as the piling up of armaments, climate change, the diversion of resources from the poor to the rich, and threats to the family and social cohesion. Our short-term, reactive self-interest is largely ideological, concerned more with shoring up our world view and creating bonding opportunities with people who think the same way than with solving the world's social and environmental problems. It's determined largely by a dangerous combination of emotion coupled with abstract intellectual thought. It concerns itself with the immediate, which means a focus on what can be done now rather than outcomes. And what can be done now to solve most social problems is inevitably the source of endless heated and destructive debate because our problems are so complex.

We should build into our policymaking system the fact that there is far more consensus over the sort of outcomes that we as a society want to see than there is over the supposed means of achieving them. The societal self-interest that Russell implicitly identifies - the sort that is beneficial to all of humanity - could then take over from the narrow, fear-based self-interest that animates so many of the world's political (and military) decisions.

Social Policy Bonds would encourage us to make the distinction. A bond regime would make decisions about society's long-term goals on the basis not of what government can do now or where it should allocate its funds, but on what needs to be done. This would take the ideology and emotion of how things shall be done and who shall achieve them. Social Policy Bonds could then target effectively those universal social goals that are currently either not being targeted, or not being achieved, or from which we actually moving away. A world of peace, for instance, or a world that seeks to prevent or mitigate catastrophes of any sort. For more on the Social Policy Bond principle and its applications see SocialGoals.com

15 February 2015

Rewarding the rich and the dead

From the Economist:
According to the [United States] Government Accountability Office, between 2007 and 2011 Uncle Sam paid some $3m in subsidies to 2,300 farms where no crop of any sort was grown. Between 2008 and 2012, $10.6m was paid to farmers who had been dead for over a year. ... [W]ith crop prices now falling, taxpayers are braced to be fleeced again. Milking taxpayers, 'the Economist', 14 February

When government makes so many policy interventions, some of them are going to be bad. A working, viable, democratic, accountable and transparent policymaking system would, we'd hope and expect, weed out bad policies or, with judicious regulation and further intervention, convert them into better policies. But our current policymaking system is incapable of doing that. Instead, bad policies become worse policies, because rather than have mechanisms for getting rid of them they create interest groups who resist change and, as recipients of taxpayer funds, can afford expensive lobbyists to make these policies permanent features of the political landscape. 
So it is with agricultural policy, not only in the US, but in almost all of the developed countries. Forty years ago, or instance, the stupidity of the European Community's Common Agricultural Policy was well established and widely discussed. But very little has changed. These policies hurt consumers in the developed countries by raising food prices. They reward intensive farming with devastating effects on the environment and animal welfare. They penalise third-world countries by putting up barriers to their agricultural exports. They cost billions of dollars and their only beneficiaries, apart from the bureaucrats who administer them, are agribusiness corporates and wealthy landowners. From the same article: 

I wrote about all this 15 years ago. Worth repeating and emphasising is that our policymaking system does not correct its errors. Instead, appallingly wasteful policies persist because they enrich people who lobby against their removal. We have a system that cannot correct errors but rather entrenches them. The current system, in brief, is dysfunctional.

A better alternative would be to focus on outcomes, and reward people for achieving them. People understand outcomes, and policies under an outcome-oriented system would not be subject to the smoke-and-mirrors manipulation that saw measures taken to 'protect the family farm' be transmuted into subsidies for agribusiness and billionaire landowners - alive and dead. Agriculture, of course, is not the only sector that government policy has corrupted in ways that hurt ordinary people, though it is one of those with the longest history of government intervention. Our failure to correct our policy mistakes in agriculture speaks volumes about how unfit is our current policymaking system.

12 February 2015

Dog food or doomsday

A longer version of a previous posting:

It's a puzzle to me how we have created regimes that allow financial incentives to operate creatively in interesting but ultimately not very important aspects of our lives - advertising dog food, for example - while ways of dealing with the most serious determinants of mankind's well-being rarely reward efficiency. So employees of companies selling dog food have sales and revenue targets to meet, stringent deadlines, and they are offered meaningful incentives backed up by robust reporting and analysis systems to monitor progress and so achieve maximal dog food market penetration. In contrast, responsibility for what you might think should be major priorities for homo sapiens is given over to the dead hand of government or brave, well-meaning, hard working but under-resourced non-governmental organizations.

What are these priorities are? Most of us would probably give a high rating to things like avoiding the deaths of many millions of people in a nuclear exchange. Or the ending of any violent political conflict of the sort that, amazingly, in the 21st century, still kills, maims or makes homeless countless thousands of us around the globe. Or minimising the deaths caused by natural disasters, or pandemics.

Climate change too: it's no different from other potential catastrophes in that we don't know when or how it will strike. The most fortunate amongst us can insure against some of the financial costs of some adverse climatic events. But even there, markets cannot fully redress the balance. The uninsured, whether uninsurable or not, cannot be compensated at all. Markets are even less capable of addressing the more global calamities of nuclear war, or large-scale violence.

Some years ago I came up with the Social Policy Bond idea, which aims to channel market incentives into the achievement of social goals. Much of this idea has been taken up by governments worldwide, in the form of Social Impact Bonds. But SIBs leave out one crucial aspect of the Social Policy Bond principle: tradeability. When the bonds are tradeable on a secondary market, we can greatly enlarge their scope, because we do not have to specify which organizations shall achieve our goals, and because we can target goals that might be too remote to interest existing organizations.

Take something that has recently made the news: nuclear catastrophe. As the members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists shift the hands of their doomsday clock to three minutes to midnight, where are the incentives that will mobilise large numbers of us actually to do something to avoid the doom represented by midnight? There aren't any - we're all doing better by devoting our ingenuity to selling dog food.

The answer could be Social Policy Bonds. Targeting nuclear catastrophe they would be backed by governments, NGOs, philanthropists and anybody with a strong interest in human well-being. Floated on the open market they would become redeemable for, say, $1m each only after a thirty-year period during which no nuclear explosion takes place. Floated on the open market, they might fetch just $10000 each, if the market thinks the probability of thirty years’ nuclear peace is low. But these bonds would be tradeable: their value would rise and fall according to how likely people think the peace target will be reached.

Initial investors would buy the bonds and do whatever they can to increase that probability. Even helping existing ways of monitoring nuclear material might see the value of their bonds double. Others, with expertise in different areas, would buy their bonds and do what they can to raise the value of the bonds still further. At every stage, the bonds would be in the hands of those most able to bring about nuclear peace. The bondholders’ goal is exactly congruent with society’s: they make money only by achieving society’s goal. At every stage of every process required to achieve that goal, incentives will motivate people to be as efficient as possible.

Rather than encourage endless speculation about what projects will make the world more peaceful the bonds would, in effect, contract out the achievement of world peace to the market. They would encourage a wide range of adaptive projects, whose sole criterion for funding would be that they would raise the probability of world peace being achieved. In this way, the governments and others who back the bonds would do what they are best at: articulating society’s goals and raising the revenue for their achievement. At the same time, the market would be doing what it is best at: allocating resources as efficiently as possible.

If nuclear peace sounds too lofty a goal, then we could start by aiming for something like peace in the Middle East. The same principle would work for natural disasters or climate change. In every case, we'd be rewarding the successful achievement of a sustained, desirable outcome, without - as now - distracting ourselves by self-indulgent irrelevancies such as who shall achieve it and how they shall do so. It is a shame to me that few people seem to think along these lines.