30 July 2016

Policy for the Middle East

Philippe Sands discusses the recently released Chilcot report into the UK's role in the Iraq conflict:
There’s nothing really new, since the material emerged when the hearings took place, but these 169 pages of tightly woven narrative and assessment nonetheless offer a unique insight into the place of legal advice within government: how law is made to fit around policy, rather than the other way round. ....  [T]he decision to remove Saddam Hussein and wage war in Iraq was taken early, and ...  intelligence and law were then fixed to facilitate the desired outcome.  A grand and disastrous deceit, Philippe Sands, 'London Review of Books', 28 July. (My emphasis.)
The Iraq debacle is a tragic story of how policy is made without regard not only for the law, or the truth, but also for the well-being of people in Iraq. It's a typical conceit of those in power. Here's a problem: Saddam's regime is nasty. And here's our solution: remove Saddam and wage war in Iraq.

I can't offer a better solution. But what I can offer is a way of generating better solutions. The first step is to be clear about our goals. I'd say our over-arching goal should have been to improve the well-being of all the Iraqi people. A second goals would be to remove any threats to non-Iraqis arising from weapons of mass destruction. For each of these two goals we need reliable indicators that we could then target by issuing Social Policy Bonds. A quantifiable indicator of well-being could target for improvement a combination of such measures as the human development index, the numbers of political prisoners, the numbers killed in sectarian violence, numbers of emigrants and refugees, and some measures of media incitement to hatred and violence. Importantly, such Iraq Peace Bonds would not assume that, for instance, Saddam must be removed and his regime dismantled. It would be up to bondholders, motivated by financial incentives, to calculate how best to achieve peace in Iraq. Financial incentives - not emotion - would dictate their decisions.

What about the second goal: the elimination of the threat arising from real or imagined weapons of mass destruction? This goal could have been targeted by a second bond issue, which would reward bondholders for achieving the non-use of such weapons over a sustained period of, say, several decades.

In both bond issues, bondholders would have incentives to generate diverse, adaptive approaches to meeting their goals. This means that they would not impose top-down solutions on the basis of how they feel at one point in time, and that they would have a continued strong interest in the long-term success of their approaches. I've written about bonds targeting peace in the Middle East here, and about bonds targeting sustained nuclear peace here.

24 July 2016

How we select our policymakers

How do we select our policymakers? By what criterion do we judge our potential leaders? No, it's not good looks, or ability to generate soundbites, or 'the common touch', or gender, race, or sexual orientation. Still less does competence have anything to do with it. Politico.com supplies the answer:
Inside the VP hunt: How Clinton picked Kaine

How tough was the vetting? Finalists had to turn over every password for every social media account for every member of their families.They had to turn over every password for every social media account for every member of their families. They had to list every piece of property they’d ever owned, and copies of every résumé that they’d put out for the past 10 years. Every business partner. Every gift they’d ever received, according to those familiar with the details of the vetting process. Inside the VP hunt, Edward-Isaac Dovere and Gabriel Debenedetti, 'Politico.com', 23 July 

23 July 2016

Political parties are divisive and unnecessary

John Lanchester writes about UK politics:
Political parties are the mechanism through which divisions in society are argued over and competing interests asserted. The trouble with where we are now is that the configuration of the parties doesn’t match the issues which need to be resolved. Brexit Blues, John Lanchester, 'London Review of Books', dated 28 July
Quite so. Society has become too complex for the old political parties which, I believe, will have to evolve much as the stonemasons did, into organizations that are less concerned with improving material circumstances than with ritual, bonding and inner development. In their place we could see new types of organization: ones with protean structure and composition that are dedicated to single issues.
In a Social Policy Bond regime, these organizations would target social or environmental outcomes. All their activities would be devoted to achieving broad, meaningful outcomes as cost-effectively as possible. Most of us agree that we need a society that both looks after its disadvantaged members and has a healthy, efficient business sector that will generate surpluses to pay for a welfare state. Broad, meaningful goals would encompass (for examples) health, education, the state of the environment, crime, and poverty; at an international level we could target the elimination of all war and civil war.

Of course there will be disagreements about priorities, but there will be more consensus about these goals than there is about the supposed means of achieving them. Political parties are failing. They cannot cope with society's complexities and are unnecessarily divisive. They're unlikely ever voluntarily to relinquish their over-sized role in making policy, but a transition toward a Social Policy Bond regime could see them decline or encourage them to reinvent themselves as something different, much as did the old stonemasons. For my thinking as to how this transition could be managed, see chapter 4 of my book.

12 July 2016

From operative to speculative politicians

The more I chat with politically interested people, the more I become disillusioned. Outcomes for the people they purport to represent mean far less to them than the other things that go along with identification with a political party or opinion: belonging to a group of like-minded (good or 'compassionate') people; the joy of differentiating themselves from the other (evil) lot; participation in group events and rituals; the convenience of having an ideology that both explains the world and generates apparent solutions to its problems.

I am respectful of all this. I recognize the need of all humans to engage with each other, to sing or dance together, to share our hopes, to be with people who have a similar world view for whatever reason, to identify with a clan or tribe; above all: to belong.What I do find problematic, though, is that the 'rightness' of such belonging, the elation and joy that come with satisfying a genuine human need, can lead participants to prescribe policies that they try to apply to people outside their in-group, without seeking the outsiders' buy-in - without, indeed, thinking it necessary or desirable. I've written (frequently!) about how the over-arching goal of any institution, however well intentioned, initially, however hardworking its members, becomes more and more that of self-perpetuation.

Most of us, if we're allowed to express ourselves coolly and freely, want to live in some sort of welfare state, with a safety net for the disadvantaged. We also want a healthy, productive, wealth-generating business sector. Yes, there will be differences of emphasis and priority, disagreements about procedure. But our overall goals are not that different. Not so different, surely, as to justify the mutual hatreds that we are seeing in the politics of many western countries today. These hatreds could bring about calamity, in the form of weakened societies, prey to those with far less edifying ambitions. The old Arab proverb comes to mind: 'a falling camel attracts many knives'.

My response is twofold. The first (predictably!) is to advocate Social Policy Bonds. The ostensible reasons for our polarized, dysfunctional politics, are not so much about our goals, but about the ways we think they shall be best achieved. We could instead debate social and environmental outcomes, about which there is more consensus and more objectivity. On a global scale, for instance, we could target the sustained survival of our species, or world peace, or the non-deployment of nuclear weapons. At a regional level, we could target Middle East peace. At a national level we could target universal literacy, or improvements in crime rates or environmental health. People understand these outcomes far more than we do the intricacies and legalisms of policymaking under the current system, and the structures and activities of those charged with achieving our social goals. And because we understand outcomes, we can participate in the policymaking process. Nobody would be perfectly satisfied by the array of specified targets, but there would be buy-in - something we need and something missing in today's organization- and activity- based policies.

Less frequently have I mentioned my second response: the deliberate refocusing of ideological politics away from policymaking and towards other, more inward-looking, activities. You might have thought that the economic and social shambles that was Marxism would have expired with the old Soviet Union. But it survives in China and elsewhere, not as an economic system, but as an extraordinarily potent ideology about an economic system. Freudian psychoanalysis, though discredited as a therapy, survives as a cult revolving around the life and work of Sigmund Freud. There is not a single proven example of a visit to Earth by an alien spacecraft – yet opinion polls consistently show that more than half of adult Americans believe in such an event.

Could our political parties and their associated ideologues take the same steps? They probably wouldn't take the initiative, but if it became the only means by which they survive, then they would surely do so. A Social Policy Bond regime could accelerate the process. Parties and ideologues are concerned with personalities, ideologies, activities, funding and institutional structures, all of which are the supposedly rational basis for their existence from which derives the positive features of belonging. Social Policy Bonds would lead to new types of organization which would erode that basis - but not the more edifying need for bonding. There is a precedent, and it is the world of Freemasons. Some groups of working or 'operative' stonemasons began to allow non-masons into the guilds. Operative masonic lodges raised money by charging the gentry for admission to their "mysteries".  (See here.) The guilds and mysteries persisted after the great British and European cathedrals had been built. Operative masons declined in number; 'speculative' masons took over, and today there are around six million freemasons worldwide.

Could our politicians and those with a vested interest in the power-structures to which they belong and from which they derive inspiration be persuaded to give up their dysfunctional organizations and divisive politics, and become 'speculative' policymakers? Then we'd be free to focus on social and environmental outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people. I think everyone - politicians and public - would be happier if our potentially catastrophic 'operative' way of making policy became 'speculative' and focused more on inward enlightenment than on making an impact on the world.

02 July 2016

Compassionate woman, compassionate policy, cruel outcome

Compassionate woman, compassionate policy, cruel outcome:
IOM [International Organization for Migration] reports an estimated 222,291 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea in 2016 through 26 June, arriving in Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain. Deaths in the Mediterranean so far this year are 2,888, compared with 1,838 through the first six months of 2015. Source
Nobody, least of all, Chancellor Merkel, wanted this. Compassion works in everyday life, with people whom we know, or with people whose need is desperate and urgent. As a policy, though, it fails. I think we should do better to target outcomes, rather than the supposed means of achieving them. If our goal is to reduce drownings in the Mediterranean, then reward people for achieving that outcome. If our goal is to improve the quality of life for ordinary Africans, then we should reward people for achieving that outcome. And if our goal is to reduce or eliminate conflict in the Middle East, then why not put in place a system of incentives that motivates people to achieve that?

Social Policy Bonds allow us to set these long-term objectives and to reward the people who achieve them. They don't sound compassionate relying, as they do, on monetary incentives, and many on the left disdain or despise the idea (and their originator!) for that reason. But monetary incentives - often known as salaries or wages as well as prizes or bonuses or profits - are the very basis of whatever prosperity there is on this planet. The wish to acquire more cash can be directed into social and environmental causes, as well as frivolous or destructive ones. The world would be better served if we all got over our hang-ups about money and with our wish to appear compassionate, and actually worked towards more compassionate outcomes. Or, as a line from the 1981 movie, Southern Comfort has it: "Comes a time when you have to abandon principles and do what's right."