30 December 2016

Working for a living

It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. Deng Xioping
I'm not sure I fully understand the recent article entitled Shared stakes, distributed investment: Socially engaged art and the financialization of social impact by Emily Rosamund, but it did make me think about the apparent disdain that some have for worthwhile activities when they are undertaken mainly for financial gain. Social Policy Bonds have been in the public arena for something like 28 years now and their non-tradeable variant, Social Impact Bonds, are now being issued in about 15 countries. In my experience, it's been the ideologues on the left that are most opposed to the concept.

Often implicit, sometimes explicit, is their feeling, or argument, that Social Policy Bonds are a means by which investors make money out by doing what they should be doing anyway. It is true that some wealthy bondholders could become even more wealthy by first buying Social Policy Bonds, then doing something to achieve the outcome that they target, then selling their bonds for a higher price. This some call "profiting from others' misery" and it offends their sensibilities.

But it can also be called "working for a living while doing something socially useful". In the long run it's quite probably that only a few people or organizations will amass huge fortunes under a bond regime, even if they do successfully achieve society’s goals and profit from their bondholding. The way the market for Social Policy Bonds works would mean that excess profits could be bid away by competitive would-be investors. The market for the bonds would openly transmit a huge amount of information, that will indicate the constantly varying estimated costs of moving towards a targeted goal (see chapter 5 of my book for a full explanation). Barriers to entry into helping with target achievement could be low, especially if most bonds are held by investment companies who would contract out the many diverse approaches necessary to achieve most social and environmental goals.

The absolute sums of money at stake might be huge, particularly for Social Policy Bonds that target apparently remote, national or global goals, but there’s no particular reason to assume that, in the long run, it would be shared out any less equitably than, say, teachers’ salaries. Teachers? Yes, and nurses, doctors and social workers, all of whom perform socially valuable services for which nobody, even on the left, begrudges payment.

13 December 2016

Target environmental ends, not means

The current Economist looks at the the environmental cost of solar electricity generation and in particular at work done on quantifying the very big efficiency improvements in the production of solar cells since 1975. It appears that, over the lifetime of solar panels made today, there will be very significant cuts in emissions over those that would result from the consumption of fossil fuels in generating the same quantity of electricity. This is interesting but it doesn't actually tell us a great deal about the net environmental impact of substituting solar panels for fossil fuels. As one commenter puts it:
If you're going to measure the "clean" of solar power, why would you neglect the production of all of the minerals that are used in the process? These minerals include arsenic, bauxite, boron, cadmium, coal, copper, gallium, indium, iron ore, molybdenum, lead, phosphate, selenium, silica, tellurium, and titanium dioxide. Some of these minerals are difficult to source and mine, and almost always create a large degree of environmental damage in their wake. Source
There are also the environmental costs of providing backup (for when the sun isn't shining) in the form of batteries, or other storage, and the costs of disposing of the panels after their lifetime. As the Economist article says, "The consequence of all this number-crunching is not as clear-cut as environmentalists might hope."

This underlines what I have said in my previous post when it comes to making policy: rather than try government try to identify all the environmental implications of any policy with inescapably limited knowledge at fixed point in time, we should rather be identifying the outcomes we want to see and rewarding their achievement, however that is done. This would be more practical than attempting to conduct entire life-cycle analyses over all possible policy choices - which, even if it were possible, would be instantly made obsolete by new technology and our expanding scientific knowledge. It would also cohere more closely with goals that can be clearly articulated and that are meaningful to ordinary people: those that specify desirable levels of plant, animal and human health.

For more on applying the Social Policy Bond concept to the environment see here.

07 December 2016

Fossilised science is no basis for policy

How do we weight different environmental impacts? Take diesel, lauded at one stage as a way of cutting back greenhouse gas emissions, but known to have lethal effects through emissions of particulates and other pollutants:
Volkswagen’s rigging of emissions tests for diesel cars comes after nearly 20 years of the technology being incentivised in Europe in the knowledge that its adoption would reduce global warming emissions but lead to thousands of extra deaths from increased levels of toxic gases. increased levels of toxic gases. The rise of diesel in Europe, John Vidal, 'The Guardian', 22 September 2015
Or, take organic food. An organic field will certainly host more wildlife and biodiversity, and decrease or eliminate air and water pollutants. But the same field will most probably yield less than conventional farming. More land would then have to be devoted to supply the same volume of food. And it's likely too that organic food production results in higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional farming. There are also questions about whether GM crops (foods genetically modified by modern techniques) are better for the environment because they could, for example, require less fertiliser, less land, less water and be more tolerant of salt.

What should policymakers do here? The difficulties of weighing environmental impacts are compounded by our imperfect, but ever-growing knowledge of, say, the effects of pollutants, and more and more research into how to reduce emissions from transport or agriculture. Fossilised science is no basis for sound policy, and getting it wrong, as did those who incentivised European diesel engines, can have disastrous effects.

This is where the Social Policy Bond idea could help. Instead of trying to work out whether, say, less petrol and more diesel is a good idea, or whether organic agriculture is better than conventional, we could instead target social and environmental outcomes, and let a motivated coalition of interested decide how best to achieve them.

How would this work? We first need clarity over what we are trying to achieve. Mostly, we'll be concerned about impacts on plant, animal and human health. Focusing just on human health, we would have broad, national, targets for an array of indicators, such as longevity, infant mortality, quality adjusted life years and others. These would be determined by government, articulating as it does society's goals. But the ways of achieving these goals, and who would achieve them, would be the function of a market in Health Bonds. It would be up to holders of these bonds to decide, on a continuing basis and in response to all new scientific knowledge, what will be the most efficient ways of achieving these goals. The most efficient ways will be those that maximise returns to the bondholders but also to society as a whole. Bondholders' interests will be exactly congruent with those of society, and they will remain so until the bonds are redeemed - which could be decades hence. 

Health Bonds would make it unnecessary for decision makers to try to anticipate new scientific knowledge, or to make decisions on trade-offs that can be, and have been, disastrous. They would stimulate the exploration and implementation of diverse, adaptive ways of improving the nation's health. It's unfortunate that we have very few people or institutions devoted to the healh of an entire country. We have instead organizations like Ministries of Agriculture, Transport, the Environment, and plenty of organizations advocating for solutions to specific health problems: cancer, heart disease, respiratory diseases, and so on. These organizations undoubtedly do good work and are staffed by well meaning, hard working individuals. But they cannot, in good conscience, make the trade-offs between, say carbon dioxide emissions and lung problems in ways that maximise the total health of an entire population. Sadly, that necessary policy perspective falls outside their remit and could even threaten their income and status.

For more about Health Bonds see here. For more about Social Policy Bonds, see here.