14 April 2015

Anything but outcomes

Social and environmental problems are complex. Faced with these problems we delegate much of the responsibility for solving them to government. And how do those lucky enough to be given the chance of choosing who shall govern us go about it? One thing we don't do is look dispassionately at each political party's past record and choose on that basis. Even the experts don't do that. So how do we make our selection at the ballot box? We listen to promises by politicians about their stated spending priorities - inputs, in other words. Or we focus on the appearance of each candidate, or how well they come across on television. Now there's identity politics, as Brandan O'Neill writes:

If you want to see how small politics has become in the 21st century, just look at Hillary Clinton’s chucking of her hat into the 2016 US presidential race. Or better still, look at the response to her unveiling of her presidential ambitions, the chorus of cheers and whoops that greeted her decision to make hers a gender-focused, grandmotherly, womanish campaign, in which, as one excited observer puts it, sex - as in biology, not raunch - will form a ‘core plank’ of Hillary’s stab for the White House. What this speaks to is the suffocating extent to which the politics of identity, the accident of who we are, the lottery of our natural characteristics, is now paramount in the political sphere, having violently elbowed aside the old politics of ideas, and substance, and conviction. Hillary’s presidential launch confirms that, in the space of just seven years, identity has become pretty much the only game in the town of politics. The rise of Hillary and the death of politics, Brendan O'Neill, 'Spiked', 13 April
I'm not as cynical as Mr O'Neill. I'm not a great supporter of ideas or conviction in politics - not if they donit relate to 'substance' or, as I'd put it, meaningful outcomes. The fact is that not only do we not look at a politician's or a party's past record; often we cannot. There are too many variables, too many linkages and too many time lags for us to be able fully to evaluate past performance. Identity politics is a symptom of that problem, rather than a cause.

My solution? Social Policy Bonds. Agree on a set of broad outcomes, such as universal literacy, improved general health, reduced crime rates or, on a global scale, the elimination of violent political conflict (war and civil war), or catastrophe, whether natural or man-made. Then issue bonds that will reward people for solving these problems, however they do so. In short, target outcomes and don't focus too much on the identity or media performance of people who promise to spend taxpayer revenue on our behalf. Rely, instead, on a motivated coaltion of bondholders, who will have every incentive to subordinate all their activities to the achievement of society's targeted goals.

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