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.