27 November 2016

Policy for the post-truth era

US President Barack Obama talks about the new media system which:
...means everything is true and nothing is true. ...An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. .... Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what 99 per cent of scientists tell us. And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that. It happened here, David Remnick, 'New Yorker' dated 28 November
Science isn't a consensual process though, so even if the majority of scientists agree 
on one thing, whether it's anthropogenic climate change, or acid rain, or whatever, that should carry no more weight than the collective wisdom of experts in other fields, such as economists or opinion pollsters. There is a genuine problem here: how should we make policy when the relationship between cause and effect in our ever more complex societies is impossible to identify? It's not simply a question of following the opinions of existing bodies often backed by vested interests - nor of reflexively ignoring them: they might after all be right as well as self interested. Nor should we simply identify a problem then mindlessly dole out funds to the organizations whose stated objective is to solve it, but whose over-arching objective - in common, I think, with all organizations - is self-perpetuation.

We should instead recognize that resolving complex social and environmental problems, cannot wait for our receiving perfect information about causal relationships, and nor should we delay making decisions until such information becomes available - it might never happen. Take climate change: it's likely that, by the time we know the effects of man's greenhouse gas emissions on the climate, it will be too late to do anything to avoid or reverse their catastrophic effects on the environment. The current way of addressing the problem seems inadequate: extravagant gestures that might lead to some reductions in emissions that we think contribute to climate change, which might lead to some tiny, almost imperceptible (but unverifiable) effect on the climate some decades hence.

I think we can do better than this. We could use the Social Policy Bond idea, first to identify exactly what we want to achieve; and second to channel the market's incentives and efficiencies into achieving it. With climate change, we need to clarify whether we are more concerned about climate change, or about the impacts of climate change on human, animal and plant life. In other words, we define the outcome that we wish to achieve, then let the market decide how best to go about achieving it. Most social and environmental goals will embody an array of conditions that have to be satisfied for the goal to have been deemed met and the Social Policy Bonds redeemed. Our climate change goal should embody measures of physical, biological, social and financial variables that shall have to fall within a targeted range for a sustained period before the redemption of Climate Stability Bonds.

And as with climate change so with other major challenges.The important point is that the Social Policy Bond principle works even when the facts about what causes climate change, say, or crime, or war, are disputed. As such, Social Policy Bonds are the perfect policy instrument for today's post-truth politics.

Update 5 December: a version of this post for newcomers to the Social Policy Bond idea is available here

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