11 September 2018

Conflict Reduction Bonds ex machina*

The Economist foresees an imminent human catastrophe in the Syrian city of Idlib: 
In the battle last year for Mosul, an Iraqi city of [fewer] than 1m[illion], the American-led coalition killed at least 1,000 civilians despite using mainly precision-guided, or “smart”, bombs. Idlib, whose population is three times larger, will face Russian bombs that are almost entirely unguided, or “dumb”, meaning they are quite likely to miss their targets and instead hit civilians. The battle for Syria’s last rebel redoubt looms, the 'Economist', 8 September
Meanwhile Katherine Bourzac writes about research into an innovative way of dealing with the brine generated by reverse osmosis, which would otherwise be dumped into the sea with possibly damaging effects on the marine environment:
[A]llowing forward, not reverse, osmosis [makes] it possible to get more and more water to flow across a salt-excluding membrane into a container of brine, increasing the pressure. That pressurised water can be used to drive a turbine and generate electricity in a process called pressure-retarded forward osmosis. Our thirst for water is turning the oceans saltier, Katherine Bourzac, 'New Scientist', 8 September 
The details aren't important. My point is the contrast between the two visions for humanity. On the one hand, we face a human-induced scene of carnage, avoidance of which is assumed to be beyond our capabilities. On the other, we have scientists and engineers researching ingenious ways of improving the environmental consequences of extracting fresh- from sea-water.

Is it too simplistic and naive to think that the immense human costs of the forthcoming Idlib catastrophe outweigh any benefits that might accrue to the competing factions in the Syrian conflict? And, if we accept that, why do we assume that we can't do anything about avoiding them?

The answer, I think, is that our multitudes of political systems aren't fit for purpose. They are incapable of aggregating the wishes of ordinary human beings, and weighting them against the perceived, narrow, self-interest of (in this case) politicians, warlords and arms merchants in Syria and beyond; maybe a couple of hundred guys who could halt the catastrophe, but choose not to. The problem, as we see from New Scientist, is not a lack of human ingenuity. The problem is that, while some of it's channelled into schemes that benefit humanity, far too much is channelled into endeavours you might think of as low priority or - much worse - into creating and prolonging human catastrophe.

We could, and many of us do, sneer at the profit motive as a solution to human problems. There are many, especially on the left, so blinded by ideology that they see monetary incentives as unacceptable ways of solving our human problems. Presumably these people are waiting for some sort of psychological revolution, or deus ex machina* or maybe they feel it more important to belong to a tribe of believers in their bankrupt ideas than actually pay people to solve problems that in their view, shouldn't exist and wouldn't exist if we were all nice to each other.

I don't think we can afford those views. The challenges we face on all fronts - environmental, as well as political and military - are too huge and too urgent. As well, just as teachers (these days) are paid, so too would providing incentives for people to, for instance, eliminate war, bring more people and more resources into that endeavour. Some might become rich by helping eliminate war (is that so terrible?); others might simply earn the same salary as they would say, by advertising pet-food or working as a warehouse person in a plant that manufactures chemical weapons.

For centuries religious leaders, monarchs, ideologues, international organisations and politicians of all stripes have failed to end war. Even now, as with Idlib, we think we are powerless to prevent it. Why does violent political conflict continue to cause untold suffering, despite most people’s deeply-felt wish to live in peace?

We cannot answer these questions now, but I don't think we need to. What we can do is reward peaceful outcomes, however they are achieved and whoever does so. Nobody can possibly identify and remove all the possible causes of violent political conflict. But what we can do is reward the sustained periods of peace and leave it to a motivated coalition to explore potential solutions and implement the most promising ones. Currently, instead of rewarding peace, governments finance activities, or institutions, or programmes, or policies that are supposed to work for peace, but have signally failed to achieve it. The answer, I think, is to make the rewards conditional on the ending of war.

Conflict Reduction Bonds would do this. Backed by governments, philanthropists, non-governmental organisations and the public, possibly under the auspices of the United Nations, they would be issued on the open market for whatever price they would fetch, and would be tradeable at all times. They would be redeemed for a fixed sum only when the number of people killed or injured by violent political conflict reached a very low level. Importantly, the bonds would make no assumptions as to how to bring about greater peace - that would be left to bondholders. Unlike normal bonds, Conflict Reduction Bonds would not bear interest and their redemption date would be uncertain. Bondholders would gain most by ensuring that peace is achieved quickly. The broad effect would be twofold:
  • More resources would be devoted to achieving the outcome of peace
  • Market incentives and efficiencies would be injected into every stage of peace building.
Many peace-building bodies, whether public- or private-sector, work in admirable and diverse ways, but their efforts are relative to the size of the problem, small-scale and uncoordinated. For all such bodies, the financial rewards from building peace are not correlated with their effectiveness in actually doing so. This negatively affects not only, as some would have it, the salaries of employees, but their number, the resources they have at their disposal, and their incentives. Conflict Reduction Bonds, in contrast, would explicitly reward movement toward a targeted peace outcome. They would focus on an identifiable outcome and channel market efficiencies into exploring ways of achieving it. They could be the most effective means of achieving the peace that people all over the world yearn for and deserve.

For more on Conflict Reduction Bonds and variants see here.  
*Deus ex machina is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely occurrence...Its function can be to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation [or]...to bring the tale to a happy ending.... Source

03 September 2018

Armed conflict and astrology: root causes distract

Just because we don't know everything about cause and effect, that doesn't mean we throw up our hands in frustration and decide to do nothing. Or, the more common reaction when a social problem becomes inescapably visible: or create ineffectual bureaucracies ostensibly aimed at solving them (climate change, nuclear proliferation) but actually doing very little.

Take armed conflict: it's not difficult to reel off whole screeds of plausible reasons for its occurrence, or even its inevitability. Poverty, ignorance, despair, and differences of wealth, ethnicity, religion, class, culture or ideology: all these are thought to be some of the 'root causes' of war and violence. As also are: inequalities in access to resources, scarcity and economic decline, insecurity, the violation of human rights, exclusion or persecution of sectoral groups, and state failures including declining institutional and political legitimacy and capacity. Other key foundations for conflict could be historical legacies, regional threats, the availability of weapons, economic shocks, and the extension or withdrawal of external support. Demography is also significant: large numbers of unemployed males can catalyse conflict.

Sometimes inward factors are cited; such as individual pathologies; perhaps a history of being abused that predisposes someone to take up violence in later life. Often blamed too are the media, and the frequency with which our children are exposed to images of violence - especially when violence is presented as an acceptable and effective way of solving problems.

No doubt all these factors can and do play a part in fomenting and fanning the flames of conflict. But (1) every 'root cause' will have its own root cause and (2) even aside from the impossibility of eliminating every potential cause of conflict, there is no inevitability that these causes will lead to armed conflict. Selective memory has strengthened these linkages in the collective mind, but for each of these 'root causes' there are examples that disprove any simple cause-and-effect relationship. There are, for example, dozens of countries in which people of different ethnicity and religion live happily side-by-side.

Perhaps Tolstoy summed it up best:
The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we discover, and each single cause or series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself, and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the event. War and Peace, page 85, Leo Tolstoy, 1867
Searching for alleged root causes, then, might not be the best way of trying to solve a problem. Applying the Social Policy Bond principle could be the answer.For instance, instead of policymakers' trying to look for and deal with root causes of armed conflict, they could raise the revenue to back Conflict Reduction Bonds. Then it would be up to bondholders to identify the most cost-effective ways of reducing conflict. That might involve looking for root causes, but only if doing so will be the most efficient way of achieving the outcome we seek. 

As an aside, I'll quote the former Grand Archdruid, John Michael Greer on the subject of astrology : 
Why do the positions of the planets relative to the 30° wedges of the ecliptic that astrologers call the zodiacal signs, and the position of these relative to another set of wedges of space, the mundane houses, which are calculated from the point of view of the observer, predict the future? Why do those 30° wedges have the effects they do, even though the stars that occupied those wedges in Babylonian times have moved on due to the precession of the equinoxes?  And why should the chart cast at the moment of the spring equinox of 2019 in London provide insight into how Britain will fare through Brexit? There’s a simple answer to this, which is that nobody knows. Astrology didn’t come into being because somebody decided to cook up an elaborate theory about planetary influence. It came into being because people who watched the skies in various parts of the world in ancient times noticed that certain relationships among those little bright dots in the night sky provided reliable advance warning of certain events down here on Earth. An astrological interlude, John Michael Greer, 29 August (my emphasis)
My point: the important thing is to solve problems, not try to work out why they have arisen. It might be a good idea to look for root causes, but it might be more efficient instead to aim for the outcome that we want without doing so. Trying to understand fully the relationships between cause and effect may be a waste of time, or actually delay and impede the achievement of our social and environmental goals. Outcomes are more important than theory, whether we are talking about ending war or predicting the future.