28 January 2019

Hyper-manicured public spaces

Colin Tosh, lecturer in ecology, writes about hyper-manicured public spaces in the UK. He gives examples:
The wildlife value of a particular tree species in cities is often disregarded when a decision is made to remove it. In parks, plant species which are exotic to the UK such as the New Zealand cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) are intentionally planted because no native wildlife can use them, so they are low maintenance. ...

Leaves are swept up immediately before their nutrients can return to the ground and the insects that lay their eggs on them are doomed to certain death. Road verges are cut back to the bone several times each year and the clippings are left lying, minimising their use as a habitat for wild flowers. How hyper-manicured public spaces hurt urban wildlife, Colin Tosh, 'The Conversation', 22 January
Part of the reason is that the wishes of local people conflict with those of the bodies charged with maintaining these spaces:
It doesn’t help that grounds management is often subcontracted to private firms in the UK. In these cases, grounds management is more likely to be insensitive to expert advice as the function is out of the hands of the democratically controlled body and with a private company that needn’t care what the public thinks.
We see this all the time: corporate bodies have goals that conflict with those of ordinary people. Often their goals are short term and narrow. Qualities important to the public fall through the cracks: in this instance, the local environment; more generally the global environment, social cohesion and other things that make up the Commons.

Social Policy Bonds could work quite well in targeting broad, long-term goals, such as the dealing with climate change or its impacts. For local goals, such as the well-being of public spaces, the remedy would appear to be, as indicated by Mr Tosh, ensuring that the bodies responsible are accountable to the people directly affected. Both approaches entail taking ordinary people's long-term goals seriously, and giving a lower priority to the short-term goals of corporate bodies, including government agencies.

Interestingly, even on their own terms, efforts made to satisfy the short-term accountancy-type goals local authorities, fail:
The irony of it all is that measures to improve public areas for wildlife essentially involve less effort overall. All that really needs to be done is to allow public areas to be a little more unkempt, because unkempt areas are what nature likes.
 Again, there is a larger-scale parallel: 
If shareholder primacy theory is correct [ie, that the over-arching goal of corporate managers is to maximise shareholder value] corporations that adopt such strategies should do better and produce higher investor returns than corporations that don’t. Does the evidence confirm this? Surprisingly, the answer to this question is “no.” The Shareholder Value Myth, Lynne A Stout, 'European Financial Review', 30 April 2013
And the reasons are similar and include: the differing goals of the many stakeholders, not all of which are readily quantifiable; and, very often, conflict between long- and short-term objectives. Corporations, of course, are supposed to be in competition with each other, so should be penalised if they fail to meet consumer demand. But, as Jonathan Tepper tells us, competition is now an every more rare feature of today's mixed economy. A Social Policy Bond approach might be the answer, whereby investors form a new sort of organisation and enrich themselves if and only if they help achieve the long-term goals of society as a whole.

17 January 2019

Channelling viciousness

From a letter to the editor of today's Financial Times:
Bernard Mandeville, the 18th century Dutchman who left Rotterdam to live in England, was not only an early modern crossover representative, he also understood the psychological roots of humankind. In his Fable of the Bees he asserts that rationality is not necessarily virtuous. In fact, individuals acting viciously can bring about positive aggregate results such as higher investment, employment and economic growth. Dr Jacob Borheim, Financial Times, 17 January 2019
For sure, the accidental effects of human actions can be beneficial as well as disastrous. Adam Smith's Invisible Hand apodictically generates material wealth. But pursuit of our individual goals can and does create serious social and environmental problems too. A benign, quick-acting, and impartial government can regulate away the worst excesses arising from our pursuit of happiness. But governments aren't quick acting, and rarely are they benign and impartial. In fact, society is now so complex that even such an ideal government couldn't react quickly enough to the negative impacts of economic growth. As well, the world is too small now for the solution of social and environmental problems to be left to chance: with a human population of more than 7 billion, and difficult-to-identify feedback loops and time lags, no single body can anticipate or successfully regulate the world economy's adverse impacts. Yes, 'positive aggregate results' can result from individuals acting in our own interest. They might even be net positive results. But (1) that still implies a lot of negative results and (2) we'd do better to minimise negative results before they occur. 

This is what Social Policy Bonds could do. One of the great advantages of the bond approach is that we can encourage people to achieve social goals without anyone knowing in advance how they will do so. A subset of such goals would be the targeting for reduction of the negative impacts of economic growth however they arise. Investors in the bonds would then have incentives to scrutinise current and proposed private- or public- sector projects with a view to minimising their negative impacts. Taking a broad, long-term, global approach, we could, for example, aim to reduce disasters of any sort, without having to specify how or where they occur.
Under a Social Policy Bond regime, then, people would still be acting rationally and even viciously, but we'd be channelling such behaviour into the pursuit of society's well being. In short: giving greed a chance

08 January 2019

Climate change, war and celibacy

Why do wars happen? Why do crime rates go up and down? The answers to these and other complex social and environmental questions are many and varied. What about climate change? It appears that it is most probably caused by mankind's greenhouse gas emissions. But not definitely - and that uncertainty partly explains why, despite all the conferences, treaties, entreaties, agreements and commitments, our greenhouse gas emissions are at record levels.

I think we face these challenges using outdated thinking. For historical reasons, policymaking is almost entirely a top-down activity. Politicians and public servants see a problem, try to identify its causes, then decide what needs to be done about them. If they aren't certain what needs to be done, either they guess at the causes or ignore the problem. 'Ignoring' takes the usual costly bureaucratic forms: setting up bodies, forming committees, holding meetings, and generating worthy but useless reports and agreements.

The problem is that no single body can identify the causes of such problems as war or crime or even climate change, and then work on them in the ways that used to work on more obvious social and environmental problems. Our biggest and most urgent problems are too diverse, and their causes change to rapidly, for the old ways of making policy to address them adequately.

The question then becomes: do we need to identify a problem's root causes before we try to solve it?

John Michael Greer asks why celibacy fosters the long-term survival of monastic systems:
Perhaps celibacy works because it prevents sexual jealousies from spinning out of control, as they so often do in the hothouse environment of communal living. Perhaps celibacy works because pair bonds between lovers are the most potent source of the private loyalties that so often distract members of communal groups from their loyalty to the project as a whole. Perhaps celibacy works because all that creative energy has to go somewhere — the Shakers birthed an astonishing range of artistic and creative endeavors.... Perhaps it’s some other reason entirely. The point that needs to be kept in mind, though, is that in a monastic setting, celibacy works, and many other ways of managing human sexuality in that setting pretty reliably don’t. The question “does x happen?” is logically distinct from the question “why does x happen?” It’s possible to be utterly correct about the fact that something is the case while being just as utterly clueless about the reasons why it is the case. (My italics.) After Progress, John Michael Greer, 2015
So, do we really need to identify the causes of climate change or war or crime, before we try to eliminate them? I don't think we do (and, incidentally, I don't think we can, definitively).

I suggest that instead of opting, in effect, for inaction by sending people off on a fruitless, never-ending search for 'root causes', we take steps to reward the solution of these complex problems, and let a motivated coalition work out the most efficient ways of solving them, whether or not such ways have anything to do with root causes.

Social Policy Bonds are a way in which we can do this. The bonds would target outcomes, rather than the alleged means of achieving them. Instead of targeting climate change, they would target for reduction the negative impacts of adverse climate events on human, animal and plant life. Instead of trying (or pretending to try) to prevent conflict in Africa or the Middle East, a Social Policy Bond regime would target for reduction the numbers of people killed and made homeless in those regions and reward whoever achieves and sustains such reductions. Complex social and environmental problems require diverse, adaptive approaches for their solution. They don't require that we identify their real or mythical 'root causes' before doing anything. By contracting out the achievement of solutions to a motivated coalition of holders of Social Policy Bonds, we could avoid endless searches for nebulous root causes and instead devote our energies to finding solutions to the problems they create.

For more about my approach to climate change see other posts on this blog, or this essay. For more about my approach to achieving peace, follow this link.

01 January 2019

Social Policy Bonds: the outlook for 2019

After about thirty years in the public arena, how is the Social Policy Bond concept faring? Not that wondrously, to be frank. As far as I'm aware, no Social Policy Bonds as I conceived them have ever been issued. The Financial Times, though, does tell us that more than 100 Social Impact Bonds have been launched across 24 countries, raising $400m. SIBs are a 'lite' version of Social Policy Bonds. The main difference between them and Social Policy Bonds is that they are not tradeable which, in my view, greatly diminishes their scope and opens them up to favouritism, gaming and manipulation. I've had no involvement with SIBs and have written before in this blog (here, for instance), and more definitively here and here, about why I am ambivalent about them.

Nevertheless, via SIBs, the idea of rewarding better performance is making tiny inroads into the public sector; that is, into the achievement of social goals. This feature, so long a feature of the private sector, is now being deployed to help solve social problems, though in very limited circumstances. I'd be more optimistic if this small change were being used to do something other than favour existing bodies in pursuit of narrow goals, but I suppose we should be grateful that there are some steps, however tentative, in the right direction.

Frankly, I don't see much else to be positive about where policymaking is concerned. There's little in the way of constructive dialogue, and much in the way of Manichaean name-calling. Take immigration: it's at least arguable that immigration reduces wages and raises housing costs. It has benefits of courrse, also, but too often people trying to discuss the downsides are dismissed as xenophobes or worse. There's a genuine question too, over whether national governments should put the interests of their own citizens over those of would-be immigrants. But these questions can hardly be raised, such are our rancorous politics. The broader problem is that the determinants of the policies we make are determined primarily by ideology, emotion, personality, televisual footage, and sound-bites.

Anything except outcomes, in short. And that gives me grounds for tentative optimism. Our current ways will self destruct. They are unsustainable. Out of the rubble, it's possible - just - that we shall target and reward the achievement of social and environmental outcomes. I mean long-term outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people, rather than the narrow short-term goals that characterise corporations, financial traders, billionaires and, these days, politicians. Such a trend is unlikely to begin in the year 2019, but it's possible. If it were to occur, then we might also give priority to achieving our goals cost-effectively. At that point Social Policy Bonds, in their full tradeability, could step onto the stage and at last begin to play their role.