As things are, the job of politicians is to feed the emotional-entertainment industry that we call “news,” which is accomplished by grandstanding and self-promotion. Reporters and pundits cover politics by analyzing how politicians succeed and fail as spokespeople and media figures. Interest shifts, by turns, to how the game is played, how the media fits into this game, and, eventually, how journalists do their jobs. The news today, properly understood, is about the careers of politicians and journalists. It is career drama. (My italics) Vicious Cycles, Greg Jackson, 'Harper's Magazine', dated January 2020In the absence of any more meaningful measure of politicians' competence, we focus on how they appear in the media. But what else can we do? The links between what politicians say, what they mean, and what actually happens are tenuous, obscure or non-existent. Only rarely can we say that this politician did something that led to that outcome. Society is just too complex to identify cause and effect with certainty. There are exceptions: decisions to go to war, for instance. But for the most part, when wondering whom to vote for we depend on the news or, as Mr Jackson accurately puts it, "news".
When seeing the wide, and widening, gap between politicians and ordinary citizens, we are right to draw attention to the baleful influence of the wealthy organisations - public- and private-sector - who, along with their lobbyists, are the only people that have the time and motivation to understand how policy is made and how they can manipulate it for their own benefit. If only there were a means by which we could make politicians enact policies that benefit the people they are supposed to represent.
Social Policy Bonds are one such means. You might have heard of Social Impact Bonds, which are the non-tradeable version of my original (long pdf, scroll to page 266) idea. There are several reasons why I think we need the bonds to be tradeable if they are going to make significant gains in policy effectiveness and efficiency. I write about those reasons here and here. The important point is that the bonds reward outcomes: outcomes, moreover, that are meaningful to ordinary people and which, in fact, ordinary people can help identify and prioritise. Because Social Policy Bonds are tradeable they can target long-term goals, whose pathway to achievement is unclear. We can therefore target remote goals, such as universal literacy or world peace, because we do not have to specify in advance how those goals shall be best achieved, nor whom we shall charge with achieving them. The market for the bonds would ensure that only the most efficient projects will be rewarded. The long-term nature of the bonds means that investors will have incentives to research a wide range or initiatives, and persist only with the most efficient.
Our biggest, most urgent challenges - such as climate change or conflict reduction - will require a mosaic of diverse, adaptive projects. These are exactly the sorts of projects that government at any level implement. The top-down approach is good for articulating society's wishes, and for raising the revenue for their achievement, but when it comes to actually achieving any but the most obvious goals - the ones with the clearest link between cause and effect - it fails. A Social Policy Bond regime would see politicians doing what they do well: helping society define its goals and raising taxes. But it would contract out the achievement of these goals to more motivated investors, who have a sustained interest in achieving their goals - which are exactly the same as those of society. Economic theory and all the evidence tell us that competitive markets are the most efficient way of allocating scarce resources to achieve prescribed ends. Under a Social Policy Bond regime it is society that would determine these ends, and market forces would channel the market's incentives and efficiencies into achieving them.