20 February 2017

Dealing with the unknown

Speaking ahead of an address to the Munich Security Conference, [Bill Gates,] the richest man in the world said that while governments are concerned with the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons, they are overlooking the threat of biological warfare. Bioterrorism could kill more people than nuclear war, Bill Gates to warn world leaders, 'The Telegraph', 17 February
One of the strengths of the Social Policy Bond principle is that we do not need to specify in advance the exact nature of the problem we want to solve. Many potential problems could arise from our denser, more linked, populations and higher technology. These are difficult even for a well-resourced government, or indeed any single big organisation, to anticipate, let alone do much to forestall. Hurricanes, tsunamis or pandemics are only a subset of a range of and disasters that threaten mankind. Others include the risks arising from new biological advances or scientific experiments that concentrate energy, or natural disasters such as asteroid impacts or volcanic super-eruptions. These threats are in addition to the 'known unknowns' of more widely understood catastrophes. Social Policy Bonds are versatile: depending on society's wishes, and the views of the bonds' backers, bonds could target any type of disaster that, say results in the deaths of 10 000 people within one week or its occurrence, however caused and in whatever part of the world.

Holders of such Disaster Prevention Bonds, would be able to redeem them only after a sustained period of, say, ten years, during which no such disaster has occurred. They would have incentives to anticipate potential disasters and to work to prevent them and mitigate their effects on human life. Today's disaster prevention policies are mostly carried out by bodies anticipating 'known' types of disaster, and mitigation strategies are often merely reactive. As well, few have the types of incentives that Disaster Prevention Bonds would put in place, that would reward the sustained absence of a disaster.

08 February 2017

Consensus and buy-in

From the current issue of the Economist:
Millennials are accustomed to tailoring their world to their preferences, customising the music they listen to and the news they consume. A system that demands they vote for an all-or-nothing bundle of election promises looks uninviting by comparison. Not turning out, 'Economist', 4 February
And not only millennials. There's palpable disillusion, cynicism and despair about where our political systems are taking us. There's consensus that they are not working, but little consensus about how to change them. In such circumstances, we appear to be drifting toward authoritarianism.

My suggestion? Instead of taking as our starting point the political party and its membership, let's focus on the social and environmental outcomes that we'd like to see. There's certainly more consensus over the in which direction we'd like to see broad outcomes move than there is about the supposed means of effecting that movement. I would say there's near total agreement amongst the global electorate that, for example, nuclear war is something we don't want. And while we do have organizations at every level trying to defuse conflict, they do not have the command of resources nor the expertise to look at the global interest over a period of decades. And unlike the 'defence' contractors or the ideological fanatics, neither do their rewards correlate with their success or otherwise in achieving their organizations' objectives. More fundamentally, because we take our current policymaking system as a given, the wishes of the vast majority of human beings have to be channelled through our over-worked, or entirely self-interested, or corrupt politicians and bureaucracies. Few people can afford to spend their time and expertise in working full-time to ensure nuclear peace. When the issue does exercise the public imagination, it invariably becomes a forum for energy-sapping, ideologically-based squabbling about partisanship and motives.

A Social Policy Bond regime targeting sustained nuclear peace would transcend party political differences. It would generate a motivated coalition of interests devoted to achieving that goal - which would be exactly society's goal, as laid down in the redemption terms of the bond. That coalition would be of diverse, changing composition and structure, but its goal of nuclear peace would not be subject to the whims and caprices of faddish ideology or party politics.

The same would apply to less lofty goals: there would be little debate about, for instance, the direction in which we'd want to see a nation's health go. We could debate definitions, targets and priorities but, unlike our current arcane policymaking system, these debates would be relatively easy to follow, so we should have greater public participation and hence greater public buy-in - an asset of crucial importance and one that's almost absent from today's politics.

For more about applying the Social Policy Bond concept to nuclear peace, see here. For health, see here. If you would like to consider supporting my work through patreon, please click here.

07 February 2017

Sacrifice on the altar of 'renewable energy'

From the current issue of  New Scientist:
Last week, air pollution in London soared to heights not seen since 2011. The usual suspects were named and shamed, including traffic fumes and a lack of wind. But joining them was a surprising culprit. "We think about half of the peak was from wood smoke," says Timothy Baker, part of a team at King's College London that monitors air pollution. The trendy log-burning stoves producing much of this pollution are marketed as a source of renewable energy that can cut fuel bills while helping reduce global warming. But recent findings suggest they pose a serious threat to the health of their owners, and are also accelerating climate change in the short term. If nothing is done to discourage log burning in homes, it could become the biggest source of air pollution in cities like London. .... Children are especially vulnerable ....  Where theres's smoke, Michael LePage, 'New Scientist', 4 February 
This is just one example showing how our governing institutions cannot deal with broad, long-term social and environmental problems. We have in mind something that sounds like an unarguable benefit: 'renewable energy', say, and target it, explicitly or implicitly. But we fail to take into account the broader, longer-term ramifications. There's no clarity about the distinction between means and ends. Something like 'renewability' - which is anyway a function of our ever-expanding scientific knowledge - is not an end in itself. At best, it's a means to certain ends, which are rarely specified, or specified in such vague terms ('sustainability') as to be subject to bureaucratic or corporate manipulation. The bigger picture is lost: in this instance, the health of vulnerable people and children is sacrificed on the altar of 'renewability'.

It's not good enough. We need to be reward the achievement of goals that are meaningful to ordinary people. 'Physical health' would be a good starting point. Defined in terms of objective criteria, such as longevity or Quality-Adjusted Life Years, a benign and far-sighted government could target the health of its citizens for improvement, and contract out the achievement of such a goal to bodies motivated to, and capable of, keeping up with relevant scientific advances. Our existing institutions and systems of government cannot do this, but Social Policy Bonds targeting health could. I have written about such bonds here. As society grows more complex and the linkages and time lags more intricate, so the scope for problems such as the increased air pollution described above or self-interested deception expands. We need a system that keeps the big picture in mind, and that starts with articulating what, as a society, we want to achieve. Our existing institutions, hard working and well intentioned as they doubtless are, have little incentive to advocate for goals broader than their remit. That worked in times and circumstances when the relationship between cause and effect was easy to identify and address. In today's society, that no longer applies. New organizations with an interest in seeing the big picture are necessary, and a Social Policy Bond regime would see their creation.