16 December 2017

The Collapse of Complex Societies

Clay Shirky writes about Joseph Tainter's 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies
One of the interesting questions about Tainter’s thesis is whether markets and democracy, the core mechanisms of the modern world, will let us avoid complexity-driven collapse, by keeping any one group of elites from seizing unbroken control. This is, as Tainter notes in his book, an open question. There is, however, one element of complex society into which neither markets nor democracy reach—bureaucracy.even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites. Clay Shirky, The Collapse of Complex Business Models, April 2010 (?)
In my view, these elites include the bureaucrats themselves. As Mr Shirky writes: "In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one." There are too many powerful people with an interest in maintaining the complex way we do things. This includes policymaking. It suits vested interests to keep it complex and arcane, so that only they or, more likely, their paid agents, can follow and influence it.

Social Policy Bonds would simplify policymaking because policy goals would be expressed in terms that ordinary people can understand. Goals would be explicit, transparent and meaningful to ordinary citizens, who could then engage in the policymaking process. If Trainter's thesis is correct, it might well be the complexity of our politics that precipitates societal collapse: too few of us understand it, so we have very little buy-in to the process and its institutions. In the west we are seeing the result of this lack of buy-in: extreme polarisation, whereby different views are barely tolerated. Yet buy-in is going to be essential if we are to face up to urgent, huge challenges facing all of us: climate change for instance, or nuclear proliferation.

Social Policy Bonds could help remove unnecessary complexity further down the track, when it comes to solving our social problems. Under a bond regime, inefficient operators would be penalised - whoever they are - and only efficient approaches would receive funds. It would be the self-interest of bondholders that would ensure this: their goal would be exactly congruent with those of society: to achieve our social goals as efficiently as possible. There might still be complexity in achieving these goals, but only if it boosted efficiency. The contrast with today's system, in which complexity is almost a deliberate ploy to deter scrutiny, would be total.

07 December 2017

Free market? Don't believe it

There's a lot of lip service paid to the notion of the free market, as if competition, at least over the long run, will lead to economic efficiency. There are many problems with this. The biggest, in my view, is that we now have political systems that not only entrench wealth and income inequalities, they extend them. This seems to be an almost worldwide phenomenon. Our governments and big business now act as a coalition, very often acting against the interests of ordinary people and small businesses. Inequality on a staggering scale is both the result of policies favouring the rich, and the stimulus to more of them.
Take this excerpt from a review of The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality, by Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles, discussing the US economy:
Of the firms that enjoyed returns on invested capital of 25% or more in 2003, 85% were still earning returns that high a decade later. The authors put forward four case studies to illustrate the choking spread of rent-seeking behaviour. Implicit and explicit government subsidies to the financial industry enrich bankers and sow the seeds of crisis, for example, but have done little to boost growth. Increasingly strong intellectual-property protections have not unleashed a torrent of new ideas, but have instead swelled the earnings of top firms, which wield their patents and copyrights menacingly at would-be innovators. The cost to negotiate reams of licence agreements, and the risk of lawsuits, can stymie the most determined of entrepreneurs. Analyses of occupational licensing and land-use rules turn up similarly skewed policies: they benefit those already on top at the expense of society as a whole. How America’s economy is rigged by special interests, the 'Economist', 2 December
Having been involved in agriculture, I have seen how corrupt, insane policies can persist for decades. More important than their benefiting bureaucrats and fraudsters, is that they enrich people and corporations sufficiently to finance opposition to their being withdrawn. No trick is too low. I think much of the reason for the persistence of profligate policies like agricultural subsidy programmes, and those competition-stifling regulatory barriers described above, is that our policymaking process is too protracted and complex for ordinary people to follow unless, of course, they are paid to do so.

One of the benefits of Social Policy Bonds is that they would define explicit, transparent policy goals that are meaningful to ordinary people. This would make the policymaking process itself more accessible. And when people understand what a policy is all about, we can participate more in its development, refinement, and implementation. We should also better understand the limitations and trade-offs that are intrinsic to public policymaking when resources are limited – as they always are. A hugely important benefit arising from this will be buy-in: having been consulted when our social goals are being formulated, we are more likely to participate in achieving them. The widening gap between politicians and the citizens they are supposed to represent would begin to close. Bondholders and their paid agents would experiment with different approaches to solving our social and environmental problems and, no doubt, they will try some that are useless or worse. But - unlike in today's policymaking world, with its entrenched interests - they will have every incentive to terminate their failures. We'd still need regulation and licensing, but they would be means to ends that are wanted by ordinary people, not corporations and other powerful interests.

28 November 2017

Perverse incentives and health

Dr Jason Fung explains why 'there is so much money being raised for heart disease or cancer or diabetes, and why there is so little real medical progress.' As he says, 'there are many ways that Big Pharma pays doctors':
  • The most common are speaker’s fees and consulting fees. ...
  • The second form of graft is consulting fees. The company will pay the doctor for his/her ‘advice’ as a consultant on how to market a drug. Of course, the company cares not at all about what he/she says. It is an opportunity to give these doctors a 2 hour advertisement disguised as a consultation. For this the doctor is paid $2000-$5000. ...
  • The most insidious form of corruption is ‘research’ money. While it sounds great, it is usually another thinly disguised form of bribery. Some research project is usually set up with little or no academic merit. The universities setting this up are well paid. The doctors who participate are well paid. Best of all, research meetings are held regularly in lovely locations like Vienna and Hawaii. ‘Researchers’, of course, are invited to participate, all expenses paid. The public only sees that the company has donated ‘research’ money and that the doctor is doing ‘research’. These shenanigans happen every day, in every university. If you’ve ever wondered why there is so much money being raised for heart disease or cancer or diabetes, and why there is so little real medical progress – this is the reason.Clinical Practice Guidelines or Legalized Bribery?, Dr Jason Fung, November
He's mostly referring to the United States, but perverse incentives pervade even government-run healthcare systems. By default, health expenditure is influenced by groups of medical specialists with little incentive or capacity to see improvements in the overall health of a large population as an objective. As well as the substantial money flows described by Dr Fung, funding decisions are also heavily influenced by the public profile of a disease or its victims, rather than on what would best meet the needs of society. Health is about a lot more than what Big Pharma does, or how governments allocate healthcare funds. It’s also a question of diet, exercise, transport, and culture. Recent research shows, for instance, the beneficial effects on health of green spaces in our cities (see here (pdf) for instance). The way government is structured, with its discrete funding bodies, makes it unlikely that such benefits will influence funding decisions.

We cannot expect a government nor any single organisation, even if they were ethical and altruistic, to identify the huge numbers of variables, with all their time lags and interactions, that influence the nation’s health. We can, though, devise a system that rewards people who explore and implement the most cost-effective health solutions, even when circumstances and knowledge are changing continuously. I have tried to do this with my essay on Health Bonds, which would aim to distribute scarce government funds to where they would do most good, as measured by such indicators as Disability Adjusted Life Years.

Incentives matter, and current incentives have nothing to do with achieving society's broad, long-term goals. Instead, they accrue to those who maximise the narrow, short-term goals that have more to do with the financial success of big companies than the health of ordinary citizens.

22 November 2017

Short selling

A correspondent asks whether short selling will work against the Social Policy Bond concept. Specifically: if Conflict Reduction Bonds are issued, would short sellers profit from events that would make peace less likely?

Short selling in this context would be the selling of Conflict Reduction Bonds that are not currently owned, in the hope that their market price will fall, and that the seller will buy the bonds at their lower price. Short sellers could then be motivated to foment conflict.

I have these responses:

(1) The short seller doesn't own the bonds, but has to borrow the bonds from the broker or dealer when placing the sell order. The seller is then obliged to buy back the bonds at some point in the future. Just as the seller will want to see the value of the bonds fall, so the broker or dealer will want to see their value rise. In the Conflict Reduction Bond example, any additional incentive to foment conflict on the part of the seller would be balanced by an incentive on the part of the broker to reduce conflict.

(2) The weight of money - that is, the funds for the bonds' redemption - will be in favour of progress toward the goal; just as in the share market, the short selling of a company's shares doesn't change the incentives for the company itself to succeed. It's likely that any profits from short selling will be short term in nature; the long arc of the market for the bonds will bend in our favour.

(3) Public opprobrium. While people or corporations do profit from the failure to achieve social goals, they do so in ways that are indirect. If short sellers were to work to make social goals less achievable, the source of their activity and the reasons for it would be direct and identifiable. Taking the Conflict Reduction Bond example, again, weapons manufacturers and military contractors do already profit from their activities. They could even now be deliberately fomenting conflict with the aim of boosting their revenue. Short selling would be only one more way of profiting from war, but it is one that is both more identifiable and more likely to attract public opprobrium than any other so, even if a corporation were that way inclined, it would be unlikely to follow through.

Social Policy Bonds are not a Utopian solution but (in my view) they are much better than the current system. They would bring about the re-jigging the incentives to reward the outcome we want, rather than the activities, institutions or policies ostensibly trying to achieve it.

16 November 2017

The stability of the septic tank

I often agree with British journalist and military historian Max Hastings. But not with his remarks in this interview with Tobin Harshaw:
MH: One of the things I've learned as a historian is that one should never listen to anybody who uses the word "solution." Most difficult problems in the world are not susceptible to solutions. What they are susceptible to is management. We'd all get along a lot better if we understood there is not the remotest possibility of a "solution" or even multiple solutions to the troubles in the Middle East because they are so fantastically complex. The only way to approach them is to think how we can best manage them. How best can we avoid making things worse?
TH: That goes back to what you said earlier... about peace not being the goal. What did you say - it should be stability?
MH: Yes, stability is the key.
Trump, Brexit and Echoes of World War I, Tobin Harshaw, 'Bloomberg View', 11 November
I think Mr Hastings is too pessimistic. Yes, war and conflict have been a feature of humanity at least since history began, and yes, many conflicts appear intractable. But Mr Hastings is in good company: here is Professor Colin Gray:
War is a part of the human condition, it is not a problem that can be solved. However, it is a condition some of the worst features of which can be alleviated by law, custom, norms and plain self-interest. Another Bloody Century (page 379), Colin S Gray, 2007
I am much more optimistic, and I think we should be aiming for outcomes more edifying than the stability of the septic tank. I think that if war's negative impacts can be satisfactorily defined, then targeted for reduction, then, with sufficient incentives, the suffering imposed by human conflict can be drastically reduced. As Professor Gray explains elsewhere in his book "Warfare is social and cultural, as well as political and strategic, behaviour. As such it must reflect the characteristics of the communities that wage it." (page 385). These characteristics are deep-seated and pervasive, which means that any solution to the problem of human conflict will need to be long term in nature. An array of diverse, adaptive and focused approaches will therefore be required.

Stability: our highest aspiration?

A Conflict Reduction Bond regime could work to stimulate such approaches of the sort that we cannot necessarily foresee. We should, I believe, contract out much of the work needed to find the best approaches to eliminating war. While robust definitions of 'peace' will need to be thought through, we could immediately issue bonds redeemable only when there had been large numbers of people killed, injured or forced to flee their homes for a sustained period.

Bondholders would then have incentives to prevent conflict with maximum efficiency. They would explore and invent new, more diverse options than are currently being undertaken, and they could divert funding into the most promising of these. They would have more latitude for action than government. For example, bondholders could subsidise intermarriage between members of different religious or territorial communities. They could sponsor school exchange visits, sports matches or the broadcasting of peaceful propaganda. They could arrange for the most virulent warlords and preachers of hate to take one-way, first-class journeys to luxurious holidays in remote resorts with limited access to communication facilities. Whatever holders of bonds targeting war and terrorism do, they will have successes and failures. But they will also have incentives to terminate projects that are failing and to refine and replicate their successes - to be efficient, in other words.

Government has no such direct incentive. It cannot offer direct financial rewards for success, and its talent pool is limited, partly for that reason. It would get into trouble if it advocated things like intermarriage, or sponsored sybaritic retirement for warmongers. As in other areas of social policy, its options are limited. They tend to be one-size-fits-all, slow to adapt and advocated mainly because they have been done before, rather than by their efficiency: government will always prefer tried, tested and failed to promising, innovative - and potentially destabilising.

The field of conflict is one area where the private sector can and should be given the chance to operate more freely. Sadly, it is largely private incentives - to arms manufacturers and brokers - that have contributed to human conflict. We need to redress the balance and reward those who strive for peace.

Under a Conflict Reduction Bond regime, government would still have the responsibility of defining our peace goal, and it would be the ultimate source of finance for achievement of that goal. But the actual achievement of peace would be contracted out to the private sector, who would have powerful incentives to achieve it as cost-effectively as possible. Government and the private sector would each do what it does best: respectively, articulating its citizens' wishes, and finding the most efficient ways of achieving its goals. We can, and should, aim for peace, not managing the stability of the septic tank. Peace, after all, is what almost all of us want for ourselves and for future generations.

12 November 2017

Society as an interest group

Clive James writes:
[W]e tend to believe that there is some natural state of justice to which political life would revert if only the conflicts between interest groups could be resolved. but whatever justice we enjoy arose from the conflicts between interest groups, and no such natural state of justice has ever existed. The only natural state is unjust.... The Meaning of Recognition, 2005, page 4
I'm not so gloomy. When it comes to how things shall be done, and who shall do them then, yes, interest groups - those motivated to follow the policymaking process and so to benefit from it - are the only protaganists that really matter. But it doesn't have to be that way. Or rather, by targeting outcomes rather than the alleged means of achieving them, we can enlarge the interest group such that it includes all citizens.

Targeting broad outcomes, such as better health or reduced adverse environmental impacts, that are meaningful to all of us can bring about greater public engagement in the policymaking process. Yes, there will be disagreements over priorities, but we shall have been able to follow the process and contribute to it - unlike under today's regime, where policymaking is strictly for devotees or their paid employees.

The world is too small now for the solution of social and environmental problems to be left to exclusive interest groups to sort out. Social Policy Bonds could represent a middle way between the happenstance of a free market approach to solving our problems, and the coercive, and (often) ham-fisted, inefficient way of central planning. Government, influenced as it is by interest groups, usually does a terrible job in actually achieving our complex social goals. A Social Policy Bond regime, on the other hand, would play to government's strengths: articulating society's goals and raising the revenue to achieve them. But then it would, in effect, contract out the achievement of those goals, letting market forces do what they are best at: ensuring the optimum allocation of society's scarce resources in order to achieve society's goals - not those of interest groups, be they private- or public-sector.

Social Policy Bonds would, I believe, achieve our social and environmental goals more efficiently and less randomly than the current system. The planet as a whole cannot afford either the time for conflicts between interest groups to be resolved or the collateral damage that such conflicts are inflicting on our ever smaller planet.

04 November 2017

Who cares about efficiency?

The title of an article in last week's Economist itself gives cause for concern:

Counties that voted for the president get more in disaster relief

The article is referring to the federal aid that United States dispenses following natural disasters. It's a bit more nuanced than the title suggests. Research found that:
[G]iven two natural disasters that inflict the same amount of damage, presidents have been twice as likely to declare a disaster when one occurs in a swing state like Ohio or Florida, with a roughly equal number of Republican and Democratic voters, as when one happens in a politically uncompetitive place. Economist, 20 October
 Another study quoted in the article says that: 
[I]t takes about $27,000 of relief spending to “buy” just one extra vote for an incumbent party. It would be far more efficient to invest that money in disaster preparation, since each dollar governments spend on preventing harm from nature’s wrath is thought to yield some $15 in savings on future relief costs. Unfortunately, the electorate seems to reward only politicians who open up the public purse after damage is done.
The problem, then, is not solely one of cynical politicians: we citizens are culpable to the degree that we react emotionally in times of crisis, especially when that such crises have impacts that can be filmed. Which is why I advocate targeting outcomes, including the impacts of national or global disasters, ahead of time, so that we can channel our scarce resources into the areas where it will relieve most suffering. Disaster Prevention Bonds could do this. Issuers of these bonds would target for reduction the numbers of people killed, injured or made homeless by natural or manmade disasters. The nature of the disaster need not be specified in advance and the bonds could aim to target for reduction national or global catastrophes.

Disaster Prevention Bonds targeting global disasters could be backed by some or all of the world’s governments and issued by an international body like the United Nations or World Bank. These bonds need not bear interest, and would redeemable for a fixed sum once a sustained period of absence of a humanitarian disaster had passed. The bonds would be floated on the open market and be tradeable at any time thereafter. Because they are tradeable, they would give people incentives to look for solutions to problems that might arise years beyond the planning horizon of today's policymakers. The bonds' redemption terms would stipulate that they would become worthless the moment an unspecified calamity killed, say, 100 000 of the world’s citizens by a single catastrophic event in any 48-hour period. So bondholders would have powerful incentives to anticipate such an event, and minimise the chance of its occurring. Nationally backed Disaster Prevention Bonds would work in similar fashion, on the national scale.

Disaster Prevention Bonds would entail our making decisions about funding before catastrophes arise, when efficiency, in terms of the reduction of suffering per dollar spent, will be our key driver. They would not stop the misallocation of resources once a disaster has occurred, but the second piece of research quoted above would suggest that disaster prevention is currently underfunded. A bond regime would make such funding levels transparent, in ways that ordinary people can comprehend, and it's likely that, as a result, it would work to minimise the suffering inflicted by future disasters.

25 October 2017

Whose goals?

There are two main elements to the Social Policy Bond idea. One is the injection of market incentives into all the processes necessary to bring about our social goals. The other is the focus on these goals themselves, and my contention that they be goals that are meaningful to ordinary people. Goals such as reduced crime, better health, and a cleaner environment. Under a Social Policy Bond regime we could target such apparently remote goals as world peace, or universal literacy.

Our current policymaking systems don't really consider either element. There's plenty of rhetoric about market forces but the people spouting it are, most likely, using them to justify decisions made in the favour of large corporations, typically multinationals. The hypocrisy is breathtaking: market forces imply competition, but large corporations typically try to maintain their status by undermining competition, usually by pressuring governments to manipulate the legislative, regulatory and trade environment in their favour.

Nathan Robinson's article about how Amazon is going about choosing its second headquarters in the US makes sombre reading:
There’s something sad about watching suffering post-industrial cities like Gary plead for an investment from Amazon. (Gary’s mayor issued a heartfelt appeal, on the mistaken assumption that Jeff Bezos possesses a conscience.) It feels like the peasants are coming before the king, bearing whatever meager offerings they can scrape together, and begging him for his favor. Having humbled themselves at Bezos’ feet, praised his products and promoted his brand, nearly all of them will walk away with… nothing. Even though Bezos could single-handedly transform the economic fortunes of a place like Gary, the spoils will almost certainly go to a place that is already prospering. The sad spectacle of cities groveling to Amazon, Nathan J Robinson, 'Current Affairs', 16 October
 A long article by James Meek looks at the human costs of such subservience to the interests of multinationals from a European perspective. I think it's time for us to ask the question: whose goals should have a higher priority: those of the multinationals or those of ordinary people? It's an important question, not only because these goals differ, but because they often conflict. Most of us as individuals have longer-term and more broad interests than large corporations, which are duty bound to put the interests of the company (though not specifically shareholders) above all. Because our political systems give little voice to our interests as individuals or as a society, we now have policymaking that is largely influenced only by those who have the means to follow it closely. That is, large corporations, including government agencies.
Which do you want? Do you want to live in a town patronized by some great combination of capitalists who pick it out as a suitable place to plant their industry and draw you into their employment? Or do you want to see your sons and your brothers and your husbands build up business for themselves under the protection of laws which make it impossible for any giant, however big, to crush them and put them out of business? Attributed to US President Woodrow Wilson, 1912
Social Policy Bonds could be a way of raising the influence of ordinary people at the expense of large corporations. They would take as their starting point our interests: as individuals, families, communities and societies. Being tradeable, the bonds could target goals whose end-point might be years or decades into the future. Large corporations could still play a part, but their goals would be congruent with those of wider society. In much the same way, governments issuing Social Policy Bonds while still, articulating society's goals and raising the revenue for their achievement, would be doing so with the aim of raising the long-term well-being of all society and not, as now, the short-term interests of large corporations.

20 October 2017

How to bypass cultural imperatives

Philip Salzman writes:
Peace is not possible in the Middle East because values and goals other than peace are more important to Middle Easterners. Most important to Middle Easterners are loyalty to kin, clan, and cult, and the honour which is won by such loyalty. These are the cultural imperatives, the primary values, held and celebrated. When conflict arises and conflict-parties form based on loyal allegiance, the conflict is regarded as appropriate and proper. Why There Is No Peace in the Middle East, Philip Carl Salzman, 14 October
On first reading, this seems correct. If so, it would devalue my attempts to encourage the issuing of Middle East Peace Bonds. But what would ordinary people - men and women - in the Middle East or, indeed, anywhere else, say if they were given the chance to voice their opinions in private? I'd like to think that they would happily ditch tribal loyalties in exchange for peace and the consequent brighter prospects for themselves and their descendants. Middle East peace might seem overly idealistic, and it probably is, if we see tribal loyalties which, simply because they've persisted for a thousand years or more, as intractable. But slavery too, used to be considered part of the natural order of things, along with other physical and societal pathologies. Over the course of a conventional politician's planning horizon, of course, Salzman is correct. Conventional politicians, unfortunately, generate conventional policies; a particularly ineffectual approach when trying to address problems that will most likely require an array of possibly untried and adaptive approaches for their solution.

Applying the Social Policy Bond concept to armed conflict might be the way forward. For some regions, a definition of our peace goal might need to be more nuanced than 'cessation of conflict' (as measured, say, by numbers of people killed or made homeless). But the bonds can target peace, however defined, over a decades-long term, which means that bondholders would be motivated to bring about popular, sustainable peace agreements. 'Cultural imperatives' and other so-called 'intractable' problems, I believe, are amenable to solution: we might not know the exact nature of such solutions, but we can and should be giving people incentives to finding them.

18 October 2017

Avoiding the disaster of disengagement

Peter Arnold writes:
Mimicking ‘the Trump phenomenon’, Emmanuel Macron did not win the French presidential election. The politicians who had, for decades, governed the country, lost. Mark Rutte’s governing party lost seats in the Dutch parliament to Geert Wilders and other small parties. Matteo Renzi’s governing party lost the 2016 plebiscite to change the Italian constitution. Theresa May’s governing party lost ten seats to minor parties. Malcolm Turnbull’s governing party lost seats to minor parties. As further proof my thesis, Angela Merkel will lose seats next month.

What is it about governing politicians in these democracies that has caused their electorates to vote against them? The French have a word for it, a word which emerged after Mr Macron, although lacking a political party, saw his opponents fall by the wayside – d├ęgagement. ‘Disengagement’. Winning by default, Peter Arnold, 'Quadrant online', 13 October
We shouldn't be surprised at this all-pervasive disengagement. Policymaking is now so removed from the concerns of ordinary people and the process itself is so arcane, that only specialists, usually employed by large public- or private-sector bodies, can afford to follow it. Despite the odd referendum, the gap between the politico-bureaucratic complex and the people they are supposed to represent grows ever larger. In such a dysfunctional environment, disengagement would seem to be the least timewasting strategy for ordinary citizens to adopt.

Social Policy Bonds might be a way of closing the gap. Their aim is to inject market incentives into the solution of our social and environmental problems. But, as well as, and perhaps even more important than, the channeling of the market's incentives and efficiencies into such problems, they take as their starting point outcomes. Social and environmental outcomes, that is, that we want to achieve. Under a bond regime, the focus of political debate would be on these outcomes: the priority we attach to them and how much we are willing to spend on them. Current policymaking focuses on institutional funding and structures and esoteric aspects of law and regulation, all of which can be, and are, manipulated by those lobbyists and their paymasters. The rest of us have to live with the consequences. The underlying assumption is that, if we have a social problem, it's government who should decide how we'll try to solve it, and who shall be charged with doing so. With anything at all complex it's unsurprising that such a way of doing policy is at best inefficient, and at worst an opportunity for vested interests to delay or oppose anything that threatens their business model.

Social Policy Bonds, in centering policy debate on outcomes, would encourage less rarefied policymaking than the current system. People understand broad meaningful outcomes more than we do the obscurantist tactics of today's legislators. So we should be able - if we want - to participate for more fully than we can today. It's likely too that some of the heat would be taken out of politics: there's probably far more consensus over outcomes that we want to see - healthier citizens, less air pollution, universal literacy, say - than over the supposed means of reaching them.

Under a bond regime, probably nobody would see exactly the policy priorities they want to see. But, compared with today's policymaking, (1) it's probably more likely that citizens' interests will be considered and taken seriously, and (2) public participation in the process can be seen both as a desirable goal in itself (see here, for instance), and as a necessary condition for buy-in, without which many of our most urgent challenges are unlikely to be met. Disengagement presages disaster. Social Policy Bonds could be the way to avoid it.

12 October 2017

Emotion-based policy

What drives policy? And what should drive policy? Two entirely separate questions. What actually drives policy today is largely emotion, which seems to be supplanting other policy drivers, and is easily manipulated by large private- and public-sector bodies. Society is growing ever more complex as are the relationships between cause and effect in social and environmental policy. Emotion is easier to communicate and exploit than a rigorous accounting of which policies work and which don't. But as a policy driver emotion has obvious faults. It's far too easy to subvert for mercenary and more sinister ends.

I'd much prefer to see meaningful outcomes drive policy. These could bypass the complexities of our economy and society, so they would berelatively easy for non-specialists to understand. It's far simpler, say, to aim to reduce violent crime, or climate change, than it is to make a case for (say) subsidising leisure centres for youths or urging poor countries to stop building coal-fired power stations. These actions, at some point in time, might be necessary and efficient, but that should be an open question: one to be answered by informed and motivated investors, rather than remote, cumbersome, corruptible and monolithic central government.

Which is where Social Policy Bonds would enter the picture. One of the benefits of a bond regime is to bring transparency and stability into the policymaking process. Framing policy decisions in terms of costed outcomes would be an inescapable first step. Currently policymakers can - indeed must - express their decisions as vague, noble-sounding declarations of intent, backed up by funding programmes for favoured bodies, be they government agencies or other interest groups. As Milton Friedman said: “one of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results”. (I would insert 'stated', before 'intentions' here.) Issuers of Social Policy Bonds, would in contrast, have to be explicit about their objectives: transparency and accountability are built into a bond regime, as surely as they are excluded from the current policymaking apparatus. as well as more efficient goal-achievement, formulating policy in terms of meaningful outcomes would generate more buy-in - something that we urgently need as the gap between citizens and the politicians they are supposed to represent is in danger of becoming unbridgeable.

07 October 2017

Short termism: taking advantage of complexity

There's much of interest in John Kay's presentation at the Public Hearing on Sustainable Finance at the European Commission. The key point is this:
Short termism is the product of the intervention of intermediaries. Evolution of the financial system over the last 40 years has been characterised by the steady growth of the process of intermediation, a process which has taken finance further and further away from meeting the real needs of the underlying users and suppliers of finance. Market-based capital allocation and long-term decision-making do not fit easily together. John Kay, 18 July
There's a mismatch between people's long term goals, and the short-term focus of the people who are supposed to help us achieve those goals. The same sort of mismatch occurs not only in finance but also, though perhaps less pervasively, in healthcare and education. Reasons vary, and are not easy to pin down. Information asymmetry may play a big role: in finance, as in healthcare, providers know a lot more than customers. Society is complex and large institutions are adept at misusing that complexity to take advantage of our relative ignorance. In fact, they are not above manipulating the regulatory environment to add to our confusion.

The more important question, though, is how to close the gap between what we want to see, and what our public- and private-sector institutions deliver. My suggestion is that we articulate long-term social and environmental goals, and reward people for achieving them. We don't need to prejudge intermediate steps, nor specify who shall achieve our goals. If we issue Social Policy Bonds with the aim of improving our citizens' health, say, or achieving universal literacy, then intermediaries will proliferate only if bondholders think them necessary to reach our targets with maximum efficiency. Information asymmetry means that intermediaries can take advantage of our relative ignorance about how best to achieve our personal long-term goals and substitute their own, usually much shorter-term objectives, which rarely coincide with our goals and often, indeed, conflict with them. But whereas we might not know how best to achieve our personal goals, nor society's goals, we are not at all ignorant about what those goals actually are. Social Policy Bonds would recast the way we, as a society, do things. They would put our broad, long-term, goals back where they belong: as top priorities, to which our institutions and all their activities are entirely subordinate.

26 September 2017

We're all human

As Kaiser, King, and Supreme War Lord, Wilhelm II was simply bound to be central to the decision-making processin July 2014, and a heavy responsibility rests on his shoulders for the terrible catastrophe that befell the world that summer. ... "The Serbs need sorting out - and soon." It was "now or never", [the Kaiser] declared, for a thoroughgoing settling of accounts with the Serbs. Wilhem II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile 1900-1941, John C G Rohl (English translation), 2014
What is particularly striking is how, at the highest level of national government, big decisions appear to be made on the basis of reactive, primal emotion. Rationality and the long-term interests of the people politicians are supposed to represent hardly figure at all. Reading some of the Kaiser's comments made in the run-up to World War I, one is struck by how their puerile, reactionary nature. Yes, monarch and policymakers are human - but so too are the millions of citizens for whom they make policy.

Reactive thinking is particularly dangerous when military conflict looms, and not much has changed in the 103 years since 1914. Except, of course, the destructive power in the hands of our leaders. An article about Henry Kissinger's role in US foreign policy quotes him saying to US President George W Bush’s speechwriter, about radical Islamic opponents: ‘We need to humiliate them’. Comments like this abound in high politics. George W Bush himself cried ‘bring ‘em on’ at an early point in the invasion of Iraq. These are not examples of high-level thinking.Current comments by political leaders are no more considered or sophisticated.

One of the benefits of a Social Policy Bond regime would be the clarification of social goals, and the transparency of the process that targets them. Goals would have to be articulated before targeting. They'd have to be thought through. There would have to be consultation and buy-in. It's unlikely that random, reactive emotional outbursts would crystallise into policy in such a inescapably level-headed policymaking environment, however eminent the people making them. Had the well-being of all their citizens been targeted for improvement, a Kaiser and his ministers would have had seriously and coolly to think of the  interests of the people they were supposed to represent. They would never have been allowed to lead (or 'sleepwalk', as Christopher Clark puts it) Germany and much of the rest of the world over the brink into catastrophe.

09 September 2017

I don't know: Climate Stability Bonds edition

Social Policy Bonds aren't always the best way of solving a social or environmental problem. When such a problem has a clearly identified (and universally acknowledged) cause, or set of causes, then direct action, usually done, or organised, by government, is probably the most efficient way of solving it. Much of the raison d'etre of government arises from its ability to raise revenue to solve our social problems. Dealing with military threats, providing basic sanitation and transport infrastructure, and elementary education are examples of solutions that are usually best funded via, and designed, by government.

Other problems are trickier: crime, for instance, or health and education beyond universally achieved basic levels. Or, at the global level, risks of nuclear conflict. Tried and tested approaches can help, and many dedicated, hard-working people follow these, with some, limited, success. But, in my view, these problems have so many causes, and the relationships between cause and effect can change so radically over time, and differ so widely between geographic areas, that the one-size-fits-all, top down, approaches that characterise government action just don't work. Especially when our goals are inescapably long term in nature, we need diverse, adaptive approaches that government does not do well. It is for these goals, I believe, that the Social Policy Bond concept can show the most marked advantage over any other approach.

I am not sure about climate change. A correspondent, who knows a lot more about the science than I do, tells me that it is now beyond doubt that the causes of climate change (or climate breakdown, as George Monbiot puts it) are anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. If this is the case, then perhaps my suggested solution of Climate Stabiity Bonds aimed at addressing the depredations caused by climate change to human, animal and plant life might not be optimal. The most efficient solution might be to target greenhouse gas emissions directly, either through a carbon tax, or cap and trade, or (possibly) by a Social Policy Bond issue targeting the composition of the atmosphere.

Theoretical efficiency, though, isn't the only criterion. I said 'univerally acknowledged', in my first para, above. And I've written many times here and on the SocialGoals.com website about the importance of buy-in. For dealing with climate change, which is going to require the expenditure of massive resources, upfront, for an uncertain and inherently long-term benefit, buy-in is as elusive as it is crucial. I don't know whether there will ever be enough buy-in globally to deal adequately with greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Stability Bond approach might yet have presentational advantages and more palatable money flows than such elegant solutions as a carbon tax. Any presentational advantages would be due to people's more readily identifying with the direct targeting for reduction of the impacts of adverse climatic events, whether they be short term - and televisual - such as hurricanes, or long term and drawn out, such as desertification. The money flows would be more palatable because, essentially, payment is for results: Climate Stability Bonds would not be redeemed until all targeted goals had been achieved. Another possible advantage of the bond approach is that it could be more ambitious than simply trying to return our atmosphere to something like its pre-industrial state. With a much greater global population than (say) 150 years ago, climatic disasters on an appalling scale would still occur, even if that very remote goal were achieved and sustained. A bond approach could, amongst other goals, target those disasters for reduction.

Set against those possible advantages is the more practical one of the atmosphere's composition being much more readily measurable than the multiple goals of a Climate Stability Bond regime.  

I''ll conclude inconclusively, by suggesting that perhaps the best approach would be to target (1) atmospheric composition and (2) the impacts of adverse climatic events, independently. Social Policy Bonds could be used to achieve either goal, or both, or neither. Much depends on how willingly people will pay upfront for the abstract-sounding goal of aiming to reduce greeenhouse gases in the atmosphere to their pre-industrial levels.

25 August 2017

Climate change: humility recommended

The Economist, in a long article about the US state of Louisiana's coastal erosion problem (much of which is caused by factors other than climate change) says:
The state’s impressive coastal policy illustrates America’s ability to adapt to a natural disaster that is already upon it. It does not seem to have nudged the state, or the Republican Party, any closer to policies that might slow the warming that is contributing to that disaster. (My emphasis) Louisiana fights the sea, and loses, the 'Economist' 26 August
I approve of the tentativeness implied by 'might', and it's good to see others implicitly question whether stopping greenhouse gas emissions is the best way of achieving whatever are our goals concerning the climate. I would argue that the fundamental question we should be asking ourselves is:
Are we more concerned about climate change, or about the impacts of climate change on human, animal and plant life?
Accepting that there is a climate change problem, and that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are responsible (to an uncertain degree) for it, we need, I think, to challenge the pervasive assumption that the most efficient way of mitigating its negative impacts is to reduce those same greenhouse gas emissions. With the word 'might', the Economist would seem to agree.

A Social Policy Bond regime would specify very clearly what we want to achieve. We would express our policy goal as a combination of physical, social, biological and financial measures that must fall within specified ranges for a sustained period. Only then would holders of Climate Stability Bonds be paid out. These bonds would, in effect, contract out the achievement of our multiple climate goals to the private sector, leaving it to respond to our ever-expanding scientific and technical knowledge. Current policy is rigid and arrogant, in that it is based entirely on current science and assumptions about future trends. It cannot adapt to new knowledge. We shall need a multitude of diverse, adaptive approaches to achieving our goals relating to climate change and its impacts - many of which will have nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions. Climate Stability Bonds would encourage them. Current policy, as well as being politically divisive and imposing extremely high upfront costs, will not.

21 August 2017

What exactly is the problem?

'When greenbacks are on offer, American schoolchildren seem to try harder': the Economist discusses how financial incentives can change test results:
[R]esearchers conducted an experiment in secondary schools in Shanghai and America. In each place pupils were split into two groups. The first answered 25 maths questions that had appeared in PISA. The second took the same test, but before the pupils did so, they were presented with an envelope with 25 dollar bills or the equivalent in yuan. The teens were told that for every wrong answer they would be docked a dollar. [The researchers] found that the ploy boosted scores among American students relative to their compatriots without a cash incentive, but not among the Chinese ones. Effort, not ability, may explain the gap between American and Chinese pupils, 'the Economist', 19 August. PISA is the Programme for International Student Assessment
The boost was significant: 'According to some rough calculations, if extrapolated to the main PISA test, the improvement in performance would have moved America from 36th to 19th in the ranking [of 69 countries], in which Shanghai came top.' It's an interesting result, and one that should make us question what the tests are trying to measure, and whether there are wider policy implications.

Test scores will most likely continue to play a big role in determining policy and the allocation of resources in education. That would be true whether or not we issue Social Policy Bonds that aim to achieve, say, universal literacy. So, in the light of the research results summarised above, should we offer cash incentives to pupils about to take literacy tests?

I'm inclined to think not, at least when it comes to measuring basic literacy. One reason is that motivation, or the lack of it, are significant in themselves. If children of school age find a basic reading test too burdensome to pass without a financial incentive, then that in itself can  be seen as a problem that needs to be solved. The nature of that problem might be a general cultural one, or one that's specific to certain classes of pupil. We might even interpret the difference between performance with a financial incentive and without as a social problem; and aim to narrow it.

There's no definitive answer though. Much depends on how we're going to use test scores, and whether there are other indicators that can usefully be targeted at the same time. As a society, we do need to think carefully about what we are trying to achieve. 'Teaching to the test' is problematic in itself and, while I do think universal literacy and numeracy are valid goals in themselves, and not very susceptible to the effects described above, we might do better to target for reduction as well as, or instead of, illiteracy, the social problems of unemployment and poverty.

13 August 2017

Incentives and health

Dr James DiNicolantonio writes about the influence of the sugar industry on nutritional guidelines:
Throughout the years, the effects of conflicts of interest with the sugar industry were never quantified, until a recent systematic review of systematic reviews was published in 2013 in the journal PLOS Medicine. The review found that in studies with a conflict of interest with the food industry, 83.3 percent found no evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverages with weight gain/obesity. In contrast, when only studies without conflicts of interest with the food industry were analyzed, the same percentage (83.3 percent) found a positive association—that sugar-sweetened beverages have a definitive connection with weight gain and obesity. This one study provides just a small glimpse of how much science has likely been affected by these types of influences. The Salt Fix: Why the Experts Got it All Wrong and How Eating More Might Save Your Life, Dr. James DiNicolantonio, June 2017
Nothing particularly new, but we do need reminding of the importance of incentives even on hard-working, well-meaning, highly talented members of the medical profession. Of course, financial incentives can reinforce public health as well as degrade it. The Social Policy Bond concept, as applied to health, would align our national health goals with rewards to those who are efficient at achieving them. It's unfortunate that, under our current healthcare systems, there is little to encourage people to seek out those ways of improving our health at least cost. Medical specialists, expert in their field, advocate effectively for their share of limited resources, but the overall health of the nation isn't effectively targeted. Few people have any financial incentive to consider it, and especially not to question the current ways in which funding is allocated.

Health Bonds would be different. They would target our broad health goals, probably in the form of a range of indicators such as longevity and Quality Adjusted Life Years. For the bonds to be redeemed, each indicator would have to fall into a specified range, representing an improvement over the current level. Significant improvements in a nation's health will probably take decades to achieve, but Health Bonds would be tradeable, meaning that any coalition of interests who improve our health, however marginally, can profit from their doing so by virtue of the increased value of their bondholding. By backing and issuing Health Bonds, a government could effectively maximise the health gains per tax dollar spent without having to specify how such gains shall be achieved, nor who shall achieve them. Opportunities for the sort of corruption (whether deliberate or not) hinted at by Dr DiNicolantonio and the authors of the paper he cites, would disappear, to be replaced by a healthcare system in which the interests of practitioners and population would be entirely congruent.

04 August 2017

Health: too important to be left to the healthcare industry

Brian Nelson writes: 
That our payment incentives have had the unintended consequence of often harming patients has been recognized by payers (government included) and efforts are underway to change. Can we devise a system that pays for outcomes rather than paying for services regardless of effectiveness? Unless we do, I fear things will not change. A review by Brian W Nelson (orthopaedic surgeon), of Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery, 21 May
There's an idea: pay for favourable health outcomes, rather than activities or institutions purporting to deliver those outcomes, but at least as concerned for their own well-being as those of the people they are supposed to be helping. We see this not only in orthopaedics, but in other areas of physical and mental health. There's nothing particularly startling about this: practitioners have their own families to support, and are reacting perfectly rationally to the incentives on offer. And those incentives encourage over-screening and over-treatment, and the neglect of commercially nonnviable preventive interventions. As the British Medical Association puts it, in a recent paper:
Despite the clear acknowledgement across the UK of the need to prioritise ill-health prevention and public health activities, the data analysed in this briefing show this is not matched by funding commitments. Funding for ill-health prevention and public health in the UK (pdf), British Medical Association, 2017
It's the same, or worse, in the US:
Almost 1.3 million people went to U.S. emergency rooms due to adverse drug effects in 2014, and about 124,000 people died from those events. [R]research suggests that up to half of those events were preventable. ... An estimated $200 billion per year is spent in the U.S. on the unnecessary and improper use of medication, for the drugs themselves and related medical costs.... Too many meds?, Teresa Carr, 'Consumers Reports', dated September 2017

It's time for a new approach. My suggestion is that rather than policymakers' focusing on the means by which they think good health can be achieved, they instead focus on targets for good physical and mental health, and provide incentives for people to achieve those targets. The Social Policy Bond concept, applied to health, would do this, and more: it would inject the market's incentives and efficiencies into all the processes necessary to improve a nation's health. Health Bonds would channel our scarce resources into the most efficient means of improving our health, including those currently neglected or not even considered by our current healthcare bodies, most of which have little incentive or capacity to consider broad health outcomes that fall outside their increasingly specialised remit.

Health Bonds wouldn't stipulate how our health goals shall be achieved, nor who shall achieve them. This allows a broader approach. For example: our current compartmentalised accountancy-driven policy approach would not take into consideration the adverse health impacts of subsidising advanced courses for young drivers of motorbikes or cars. But holders of Health Bonds would look at such measures, investigate their possible health impacts, and make an informed decision as to whether any improvement they might bring to the nation's health is worthwhile, compared to other possible interventions.

31 July 2017

A successful Social Impact Bond

A flurry of reporting on the success of the world's first Social Impact Bond. The goal was to reduce reoffending rates of short-sentence ex-prisoners in the English city of Peterborough by at least 7.5 percent. The result was a 9.0 percent reduction:
The conclusion of the world's first social impact bond (SIB) will return all of the investment as well as a one off payment described by Social Finance as "just over 3% interest per annum" over five years go to 17 social investors after outcomes were achieved. All of the investors were charities or charitable foundations. Peterborough social impact bond investors see 3% interest, Lee Mannion, 'Pioneers Post, 27 July
Social Impact Bonds are the non-tradeable variant of Social Policy Bonds. I've had no direct involvement in any of the 89 SIBs in 19 countries which have now been issued. I'm ambivalent about SIBs and their non-tradeability - see here and here. But I think they can be helpful where the alternatives are neglect or poor policy. They might also serve as a handy stepping-stone to the full Social Policy Bond model. For current news about SIBs there is a database and relevant links, here.

30 July 2017

Nappies, LCAs, and the environment

From an article in a recent New Scientist:
Greenhouse gas emissions from the production of various materials reveal that recycling is always greener than using virgin resources Throwaway culture: the truth about recycling, Bob Holmes, 'New Scientist', 22 July
This is problematic for two reasons. First: I think it's a mistake to define 'greener' as 'generating a lower level of greenhouse gas emissions'. Why? Because production inevitably entails numerous other environmental impacts. Second: because 'always' is anyway too definitive.

Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs) are not a simple exercise, but one conducted by the UK's Environment Agency compared the environmental impacts of disposable nappies (diapers) against home- and commercially-laundered cloth nappies. The conclusion:
For the three nappy systems studied, there was no significant difference between any of the environmental impacts – that is, overall no system clearly had a better or worse environmental performance, although the life cycle stages that are the main source for these impacts are different for each system. Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK (pdf), Environment Agency, 2005
This LCA considered a wide array of environmental impacts: 'resource depletion; climate change; ozone depletion; human toxicity; acidification; fresh-water aquatic toxicity; terrestrial toxicity; photochemical oxidant formation (low level smog) and nutrification of fresh water (eutrophication).' Climate change, note, is just one of these impacts. This study was published 12 years ago, and its conclusion might have changed since then - which is my second point: that even if we can say now that recycling aluminium, say, is currently 'greener' than producing from the virgin resource, it might not always be so. Weighting environmental impacts, apart from being largely subjective, can never be definitive: our scientific knowledge about these impacts changes, as do the technologies of extraction and recycling and numerous other relevant variables. Our current policymaking system, as applied most spectacularly to climate change, relies on our trying to identify the source of a problem and then basing policy instruments for decades ahead on that - ossified - knowledge of scientific relationships. As well as failing to account for our rapidly expanding scientific knowledge, it necessarily ignores potentially massive changes in social, financial or biological variables.

My suggestion is that policymakers or environmental campaigners stop focusing on how things are done and instead target environmental outcomes, measured in terms of human, animal and plant health. Environmental Policy Bonds could target quite ambitious goals at the national or even global level. Just choosing their target could force policymakers and the rest of us into clarifying what we really want to achieve. For example: do we primarily want to influence the climate, or are we more concerned about the adverse effects of the climate on human, animal and plant life? The difference is subtle, but it might be that doing the former is not the most efficient, nor even a feasible, way of mitigating the latter.

Clarification of goals is one crucial advantage of the Environmental Policy Bond concept. Another is that the bonds, being tradeable, could target ambitious, long-term goals that will probably require the lifetime of multiple democratic government administrations to achieve. A bond regime would not dictate how our goals shall be achieved, nor who shall achieve them. At any one time the bonds will be held by that coalition of interests who are - or who think they are - the people who will be most efficient at achieving the next step on way to the bonds' redemption.

In all, then, the Social Policy Bond concept, as applied to the environment, would motivate bondholders to explore and implement diverse, adaptive initiatives that will efficiently achieve our environmental goals. This is something that our current policymaking system, based as it is on the use of fossilised science and heavily influenced by vested interests, simply cannot do.

21 July 2017

Social Policy Bonds and free riders

Let’s say that the bonds have been floated, and that a high proportion of them have been sold to people or bodies have no intention of doing anything to achieve our targeted goal. These are would-be free riders, hoping to benefit from other bondholders’ efforts to achieve the goal, or a drift toward the goal that happens regardless of anybody’s efforts. (An example of this would be a holder of Climate Stability Bonds benefiting from new scientific evidence showing that the climate isn’t changing as quickly as the market thought it was when the bonds were issued.)

If too many Social Policy Bonds were held by would-be free riders who had no intention of doing anything to help achieve the targeted social objective, then the value of all the bonds would fall. At that point it becomes worthwhile for active bondholders to buy those bonds that are traded, do something to achieve the goal, and see the value of their bonds rise. This would benefit any remaining free riders of course, but not as much as the new bondholders, because these new bondholders would have paid less for their bonds. Most likely, we'd see aggregation of bond holdings as it becomes worthwhile for passive bondholders to sell their bonds. The resulting small group of large bondholders would then have incentives to cooperate with each other. This would mean, amongst other things, that they would all benefit by agreeing on how the specified social problem could best be targeted. One element of the optimal strategy will be to decide who will be responsible for what activities, and how they shall be compensated. Major bondholders will certainly have incentives to share information with each other. Many of the bonds would be traded between bondholders.

If the proportion of bonds held by free riders is small, then their passivity would have little effect on the market value of the bonds, and they might benefit by hanging on to their holdings if active bondholders are successful in their efforts to move towards the goal’s achievement. Such behaviour would, to a limited degree, undermine the Social Policy Bond concept, but keep in mind that:
  • The true standard of comparison is not perfection: just something significantly better than any alternative, and

  • Our goal is to achieve social goals as efficiently and quickly as possible; not to ensure that everyone is rewarded strictly in accordance with their efforts.
There is more about Social Policy Bonds and free riding in my book, chapter 4.

20 July 2017

Targeting long-term goals

James Hansen talks about climate change:
You’re talking about a system that responds on the timescale of decades to centuries — that’s a different time constant than the political constant.” James Hansen talking to David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: Annotated Edition (reference 12)
It's not only climate change for which our current politics is inadequate. Any crisis building now, but whose effects will be felt only by future generations or, even more scarily, future administrations, is going to to be neglected within our current system. Our politicians face few incentives to consider future generations, and plenty of incentives to ignore them completely. We see this in the amassing of grotesquely inflated debt levels, badly thought-out immigration policies, under-investment in critical infrastructure, and environmental behaviours including, but by no means limited to, those that affect the climate. The narrow, short-term interests of powerful interests, public- and private-sector, win out every time. As for future generations: our politicians are expert at kicking the can down the road.

Social Policy Bonds could remedy this neglect of long-term consequences. They would create a coalition of interests in favour of achieving social and environmental goals that are currently too remote to receive much attention - though plenty by dystopian fiction writers. The way the bonds work would be to reward the achievement of our long-term goals at every stage of the process.

Social Policy Bonds (unlike Social Impact Bonds) are radeable, which means that bondholders don't have to hold them until redemption to see their value rise and realise a profit.. This allows the bonds to target effectively such remote goals as climate stability, universal literacy and world peace. The bonds would begin their work as soon as they were issued: those who buy the bonds would be motivated to begin the explore measures that would immediately raise the chances that the targeted goal will be achieved quickly. For most long-term goals, a large array of diverse measures will need to be proposed, implemented on a small scale, then either terminated or implemented more widely. No government can effectively oversee such a range of projects, nor can any single, conventional organisation. In particular, terminating failed approaches in favour of more efficient ideas does not come easily to government. But under a Social Policy Bond regime there would be every incentive to focus only on those approaches that will achieve our targeted goal most efficiently. And, crucially, the optimum mix of approaches will change over time - especially over the long time period that remote goals will require for their achievement. The bonds would give rise to a new type of organisation; ones whose composition and structure would change, perhaps radically, over the lifetime of the bonds, in response to changing circumstances and improving knowledge. Again, such adaptiveness is not a characteristic of government action, but it is an essential element of any attempts to solve our long-term problems.

Social Policy Bonds would represent a radical change from today's politics. But, as long-term problems threaten to overwhelm humanity (click on the source excerpted at the top of this post, for one example) it's clear that business as usual is not working. Targeting long-term goals and injecting market incentives into their achievement would seem to be our best hope. Social Policy Bonds, uniquely amongst policy instruments, would do both.

I've written about why I believe tradeability is important here, and why I am ambivalent about Social Impact Bonds here.

14 July 2017

Climate change: means and ends

A leader in the current 'Economist,' referring to public- and private-sector commitments to run their operations on 100 percent renewable energy is titled: Better to target zero emissions than 100% renewable energy:
Most important, a 100% renewables target confuses means with ends. The priority for the planet is to stop net emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. Putting too much emphasis on wind, solar and other renewables may block off better carbon-reduction paths. 'The Economist', dated 15 July
No. The real ends of policy have to do with the problems caused by climate change. Whether, and by how much, greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions contribute to those problems is still an open question. And, whatever the answer to that question, still more important to policymakers is whether reducing ghg emissions is the best way of dealing with climate change. For that, we need to go beyond the cant about renewables and beyond the Economist's - and almost everyone else's - focus on greenhouse gases to ask whether we are more concerned about climate change, or about the impacts of climate change on human, animal and plant life?

A Social Policy Bond regime would not assume that reducing ghgs is the best way of achieving our goals. Instead it would specify very clearly what our goal actually is. Most likely, we would express our policy goal as a combination of physical, social, biological and financial measures that must fall within specified ranges for a sustained period. We'd then issue Climate Stability Bonds that would be redeemed only when that had occurred.

Unfortunately an entire bureaucracy has grown around ghg emissions. It seems to me that the existence and activities of this bureaucracy embody the assumption that our trying (and most probably failing, though we'd never know either way) to influence the climate is the most efficient way of dealing with problems caused by unfavourable changes in the climate. I think that assumption needs to be challenged. Clarity about what actually we want to achieve, of the sort that a Social Policy Bond approach would necessitate, is the only feasible starting point.

11 July 2017

Immigration: the need for buy-in

Tim Black writes about the immigration crisis facing Italy, where last year 181 000 migrants arrived via Libya, and 'already this year, a further 84 000 have arrived, which is 20 per cent more than arrived in the first half of 2016.'
Now, if those Italians whose towns have been turned into migrant holding stations had been allowed to debate the migration issue; if those living in Lampedusa and the other migrant destinations in Italy had been part of a process of democratic deliberation; and if they had been allowed to voice their concerns, and influence the decisions which have led to the influx of migrants, then perhaps the seething resentment, the sense of being imposed upon, of having their lives turned upside down with the stroke of pen in Brussels, might have been absent. Perhaps a more workable solution could even have been found. And perhaps the migrants themselves wouldn’t be treated as a problem, but as people just like us, sometimes fleeing wretched lives, always seeking better ones. The EU: pitting migrants against citizens, Tim Black, 'Spiked', 12 July
Sadly for everybody involved, our so-called representatives at the national and EU levels have got into the habit of not consulting us about almost everything. The results are as dismal as they are predictable: the gap between citizens and politicians grows ever wider. Ordinary people feel - and are - powerless. Politics are hyper-polarised. Anger and violence are now a normal feature of political discourse.

Our politicians just know they're right. So do those NGOs and philanthropists who support 'open borders', for example, though, unlike the rest of us, they don't have to live with the consequences of their momentous decisions.

It's time to change the way policymaking works. Social Policy Bonds have two main elements: identifying society's social goals, and injecting market incentives into their achievement. If we could strive for the first of these elements alone, that would be preferable to our current system. As it is, few ordinary people are consulted on issues, such as immigration, and our political class is now so removed from everyday life that they no longer have any feeling for what's important to us.

Social Policy Bonds could narrow the gap between politicians and the people they are supposed to represent. Political debate under a bond regime would focus on outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people; things like physical and mental health, crime and housing. Because such concerns are meaningful to all of us, we could all contribute to discussion about which goals we should target, and their relative priority. Of course, none of us will be fully satisfied by our collective decision. But, crucially, we shall know that we have been consulted and that, if we wanted to, we could have contributed to the debate.

One happy result of that is that there would be widespread buy-in. We might not fully agree with every decision, but we were able to participate in the process, and we now have a fuller understanding of the trade-offs inherent in any political decision.

I've written more about Social Policy Bonds and buy-in on my main website here, and in various blog posts including, recently, here, here and here.

05 July 2017

The environment: what do we want?

John Michael Greer writes: 
A huge fraction of the energy consumed by a modern industrial society is used indirectly to produce, supply, and transport goods and services; an allegedly “green” technological device that’s made from petroleum-based plastics and exotic metals taken from an open-pit mine in a Third World country, then shipped halfway around the planet to the air-conditioned shopping mall where you bought it, can easily have a carbon footprint substantially bigger than some simpler item that does the same thing in a less immediately efficient way. Dark Age America, John Michael Greer, 2016
The sort of life-cycle analysis required to establish the environmental benefits or otherwise of shifts in our behaviour are bedevilled by boundary issues, measurement difficulties and the difficulty of weighting one type of environmental impact against another. They are better than blandly assuming that rail is ‘better’ than air travel, or that solar power is better than coal-fired power stations but, for the making of robust policy, they would need to be continually reassessed in the light of improving technology, our ever-expanding knowledge of the environment, and our ever-changing environmental priorities. Government policy cannot be so responsive: if government did use life-cycle analysis with the aim of altering our behaviour, it would probably do so on the basis of a one-time, one-size-fits-all, and possibly quite subjective assessment of environmental costs and benefits. It’s not good enough, but even worse would be what we largely have now: government environmental policy based on corporate interests, regulatory wrinkles, and 'feels-good' media stories and the launching of visually appealing initiatives that attract air time but otherwise achieve nothing.

Social Policy Bonds would take a different approach. They would subordinate environmental policy to targeted environmental outcomes. It might be, for instance, that society wishes to reduce its use of fossil fuels. A Social Policy Bond issue that rewarded achievement of such a reduction would generate incentives for bondholders to bring it about at least cost. They might well carry out life-cycle analyses in their attempt to do so. But there is an important difference between the way do they would conduct their research and the way government would do so: bondholders have incentives to achieve their goal efficiently. This is likely to mean responding to and stimulating: increased knowledge of scientific relationships, and technical advances.

More important, though, is that a Social Policy Bond regime would compel clarity over society's real goals. In this case, we'd have to answer the question: is reducing fossil fuel use an end in itself, or a means to other ends? And if the latter, what are those ends? Let's say those ends include, inter alia, improving air quality. Now, is improving air quality an end in itself, or is it the effects that air pollution has on human, plant and animal life that we really want to be targeting? And, if the latter, why not target these ends directly? There might be good reasons, involving the costs of monitoring, for targeting indirect means of achieving our goals, but we do need to keep these goals clearly in mind.

A Social Policy Bond regime would necessarily entail asking ourselves what are the real goals of, say, environmental policy. It would then contract out the achievement of these goals to those people or bodies - public- or private-sector - who, at any one time, will form that coalition that can most efficiently take us along the route towards achieving our goals. Even a perfect life-cycle analysis cannot do this: technology and our knowledge are changing constantly. Policy should therefore limit itself to articulating our environmental goals, and raising the revenue for their achievement.

Most of our important environmental goals will require diverse, adaptive responses. These are precisely the sort of responses that government does very badly. Government can and should articulate society’s environmental goals, and can help pay for their achievement: in the democratic countries it performs these functions quite well and, indeed, it is the only body that can do so. But actually achieving these goals requires continuous, well-informed and impartial decisions to be made about the allocation of scarce resources. For that purpose, Social Policy Bonds, with their incentives to achieve targeted outcomes efficiently would, I believe, be far better than the current ways in which environmental policy is formulated. For more about how Social Policy Bonds could target improve the environmental goals, see here.

01 July 2017

Blockchain-based investing and the Social Policy Bond principle

Zipper Global Ltd, on 28 June, released a draft paper that marries the Social Policy Bond and blockchain concepts. The aim is to address some of the flaws in current startup protocols. The abstract of their draft:
Blockchain based investing and contributing to early stage token projects
Today’s startup funding protocols have several serious flaws. Startup founders struggle to get early stage funding and spend significant amount of their time fundraising instead of building their company and community. Investors are stuck with their illiquid investments for years, and have to make risky investments without knowing if startups are able to execute their plans. Zipper investment platform fixes these pain points and disrupts startup funding with milestone and token based investments. The platform, based on Ethereum blockchain, provides professional investors an early access and safe way to invest into even the most ambitious startups’ tokens, as funds are released to startups in tranches based on reached, smart contract controlled milestones. Investors can exit anytime by selling the startup’s tokens, and startups can scale more easily by giving tokens to their network such as users and contractors as incentives. Startups spend also significantly less time in fundraising as less funding rounds are needed. ZIP token, the platform’s native usage token, grants investors the right to invest through the platform. Moreover, a smart contract controlled Startup Trust scales the platform by investing into selected startups in the platform with the ZIP tokens the Trust holds. ZIP token holders co-decide which startups the Trust invests into and how to spend the Trust's investment profits, such as purchasing ZIP tokens from the open market which would create demand and liquidity for the tokens.  
The paper - full text here  (pdf) - is a first draft, and Zipper Global invite comments via either zipperglobal.com or https://slackin-qhgawovsyq.now.sh/.

27 June 2017

Social Policy Bonds and price signalling

One of the less obvious benefits of a Social Policy Bond regime arises from the price signalling of the market for the bonds. At flotation, the bonds would be auctioned, and difference between the sums raised at flotation and the total redemption value of the bonds would supply the market's best estimate of the cost of achieving the targeted goal at that time. This estimate would vary over time, depending on many factors including bondholders' performance in undertaking or financing goal-achieving projects. The market for Social Policy Bonds, then, as with all markets, plays a vital role not only in allocating resources but also in signalling; in this instance to policymakers, the approximate costs of achieving social goals.

A competitive market for Social Policy Bonds would minimise the total cost of achieving a specified objective, as well as signalling it. More subtly, and more technically, it would also indicate the marginal cost of achieving further improvements. Say one million crime reduction bonds issued by a local authority were to sell for $5 each. This would tell the issuing body that the present value of the expected maximum cost, including bondholders’ profits, of reducing the crime level from, say 50 to 40 units, would be $5 million. The local authority might then suppose that it could afford to be more ambitious, and aim for a further fall to 30 units. It could issue a million additional bonds redeemable when this new lower rate were reached. These would (probably) have an initial market value of less than $5, reflecting the (probably) diminishing returns involved in preventing crime. The point is that, by letting the market do the pricing of the bonds, the local authority would be getting an informed view of the marginal cost of its objectives. So if the bonds targeting the new level of 30 units were to sell for $4 each, then the maximum cost of achieving that objective would be $11 million, being equal to: $5 million (paid out when the level fell from 50 to 40 units) plus $6 million (paid out when the level fell from 40 to 30 units). The marginal cost of a 10-unit drop in crime would thus have been revealed to have risen from $5 million to $6 million. Should the local authority aim for a further fall to 20 units? Following such crime rate-targeting bond issues it would have robust information about the cost of doing so.

This is, of course, a simplified example and in fact the bond market would continuously update its pricing information. Say that new research, of the sort that might be stimulated by an initial bond issue targeting crime, suggested new ways of reforming or deterring criminals. Bondholders may, for example, have financed successful research into more effective reform programmes, or set up more appealing alternative lifestyles for especially hardened criminals. How would the market react to such developments? Once their effectiveness had been revealed, the value of all the bonds would rise. Instead of being priced at $5 and $4, the two crime reduction issues of the example might sell for $8 and $7. The total cost to the government of redeeming these bonds would not change: it would remain at $11 million (though redemption would most probably occur earlier). But the market would be generating new information as to the likely cost of future reductions in the crime rate. The market would now be expecting reductions of 10 units of crime to cost $2 million (from 50 to 40 units), and $3 million (from 40 to 30 units). The new research would have reduced the costs from $5 million and $6 million (respectively). So the cost of any further crime reductions would also fall, and by following market price movements policymakers could gauge approximately by how much. 

These figures are hypothetical, but they do indicate the role that markets for Social Policy Bonds could play in helping the government, and taxpayers, decide on their spending priorities. The market for the bonds is elegantly efficient in conveying information about the cost of achieving objectives and, crucially for policymakers, how this cost varies with time and circumstances. I discuss this in chapter 5 of my book.