26 October 2019

The new caste system

 Michael Hobbes writes:
“The sense that there’s a self-​sustaining and self-​dealing group at the top isn’t wrong,” Reeves said. “When you create a ‘meritocratic’ selection process where the production of merit is increasingly skewed by parental income, you end up with a hereditary meritocracy.” The 'Glass Floor' Is Keeping America's Richest Idiots At The Top, Michael Hobbes, 'Huffington Post', 13 October
True, but what is a meritocracy in one set of circumstances becomes something different when history moves on. What happens to what was (perhaps) a meritocracy is exactly what happens to any other organisation when faced with significantly changing circumstances: it begins to devote its time and energy to self-perpetuation rather than its stated, original, goals. Every organisation does it: be it a government body, a trade union, church or university. In the private sector too, large corporations, especially monopolies, find it more expedient to spend their time stifling competition and manipulating the regulatory environment to favour big, established firms like themselves. So I would not use the phrase 'hereditary meritocracy' to describe our ruling class: rather 'hereditary elite'. A caste, in fact.

We are beginning to see the result: a self-entrenching elite. In the English-speaking world (and perhaps beyond) we have a bifurcated society, in which those whose parents own property can aspire to own property, and those whose parents don't own property have very little chance of ever being able to buy a house, however hard working they might be.
Inequality in Britain is “now entrenched from birth to work”, according to a damning report by the government’s social mobility commission[.] Social mobility in UK 'virtually stagnant' since 2014, Richard Adams, the 'Guardian', 30 April
Part of the problem is that we have government of the people, by the people rich, and for the people rich. And one reason for that is that our policymaking processes are so obscure and protracted that only the rich (or their employees) have the means or capacity to follow it closely and thereby influence it. Ordinary people are alienated from the decisions that affect our lives.

One of the two underlying principles of the Social Policy Bond idea is that we - that is, society - should target goals that are meaningful to ordinary people; goals that we can understand and with which we can identify. So instead of politicians making themselves feel important by spending hours tinkering with various bodies' funding and regulatory arrangements, they would concentrate on articulating society's goals and raising the revenue for their achievement: things that government is actually quite good at. The achievement of these goals, on the other hand, is best done via a market. In economic theory, and on all the evidence, markets are the most efficient way of allocating society's scarce resources. By issuing Social Policy Bonds, government could target long-term, ambitious goals, without having to think about how to achieve them. That means, of course, that it would relinquish its power to decide who receives funding, and that is the sticking point. People rarely surrender power voluntarily.

So perhaps the more likely vehicle for the Social Policy Bond idea will be driven by philanthropists. I've tried to reach them, but so far without success.

16 October 2019

We don't like being held in contempt

Concluding their study of daily life in colonial Latin America, Ann Jefferson and Paul Lokken write of the conflict between the Roman Catholic Church  and those advocates of political and economic liberalism associated with Enlightenment thinking:
Conservative leaders often succeeded in rallying support for their program from native peoples and other marginalized members of society because liberal advocates of  “progress,” much like Spain’s “enlightened” Bourbon reformers in the late 18th century, generally made clear their disdain for the supposedly backward aspects of popular culture. Daily Life in Colonial Latin America, Ann Jefferson and Paul Lokken, August 2011
I think the authors are onto something here; something that applies as much to today's politics in western democracies as those of 200 years ago in the newly independent countries of Latin America. In the absence of a policymaking system that engages ordinary people, we react emotionally to the candidates and parties on offer. When we sense disdain from a political party, we vote for the other lot. The smugness of elites can be seen across the entire range of the spectrum, and our reaction to that combination of condescension and contempt explains much of contemporary politics.

We need a policymaking system that encourages us to further our understanding of the policy choices on offer - not the personalities, the sound-bites, the images or the rhetoric. We can do this by formulating those choices in terms of outcomes: outcomes that are meaningful to all of us; outcomes that we can understand and put into some order or priority.

Social Policy Bonds are one way in which we can specify such outcomes, and have people vote for those they support. A bond regime would be a way of bypassing the neuroses and insecurities of the people in power and those who manipulate them. By targeting outcomes with which people can identify Social Policy Bonds could bring about more public participation in the policymaking process. That is an end in itself (see here (pdf) for example), as well as a means by which decisions become acceptable even to those who opposed them. Importantly too, there's more consensus about outcomes than about the supposed means of achieving them. A bond regime would focus policy debate on our social and environmental goals, and which ones shall be prioritised. The process itself would generate more mutual understanding and less of the anger and contempt that are such a feature of today's policymaking

As well, a bond regime would encourage us to think long term: our goals are far more stable than the ways in which we think we can best achieve them. They are also more transparent as would be their funding. Corporations, their lobbyists and the people in power whom they influence all have an interest in obscuring how funds are allocated, and in failing to monitor whether policies succeed or fail (see Why States Believe Foolish Ideas: Non-Self Evaluation by States and Societies, by Stephen Van Evera (pdf)). With government, big business and now, increasingly, the judiciary determining our economic and social environment, what hope is there for the rest of us? The gap between ruler and ruled is becoming ever wider. Social Policy Bonds could help close it.

For general information about Social Policy Bonds see here. For more about Social Policy Bonds and buy-in see here.

08 October 2019

They've weaponised complexity

When people's wishes clash with vested interests it's the vested interests (aka 'the deep state') that win every time. Our political systems are too complex, arcane or corrupt for ordinary people to stand a chance. One result is obvious: ever-rising income and wealth inequality. It's been seen as a problem for years, but where are we now? From yesterday's New York Times:
[T]he 400 wealthiest Americans last year paid a lower total tax rate — spanning federal, state and local taxes — than any other income group, according to newly released data. The Rich Really Do Pay Lower Taxes Than You, David Leonhardt, 'New York Times', 6 October
It's not only the US. Here Martin Lukacs writes about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:
In late 2018, this avowed friend of labor legislated away the right to strike of a postal union that wanted safer working conditions; this champion of equality gave profitable multinational corporations giant hand-outs, maintaining multibillion-dollar subsidies to oil companies and granting $10.5 billion in tax breaks on the heels of similar measures by Trump; and this advocate of women’s rights set a record selling weapons to the theocratic, patriarchal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, even as their war on Yemen escalated. Private wealth continued to soar, without any discernible benefit to the public good. Much-needed universal social programs like childcare or the extension of healthcare to cover the costs of medicines in Canada—which are the second highest of any country—never materialized. Justin Trudeau, Liberal Let-Down, Martin Lukacs, NYR daily, 7 October
Voting makes little difference. And, while we don't really know the intentions of the people in power, I suspect that whoever they are doesn't make much difference either. The vested interests are too powerful. They have perpetuated a policymaking process that effectively excludes influence from people outside their exalted circle. They have weaponised the complexity and obscurity of our systems of government for selfish ends.

They can get away with this because our political discourse centres on sound-bites, personality, and image. Actual policymaking is an entirely distinct process: much of it focuses on the structures and funding of government bodies, law and regulation; all of which are opaque to non-professionals - which is to say, ordinary people. The public. The rest of us. The only people who now really understand policymaking are those who are paid to do so, and the only people who influence it are those who have the millions of dollars necessary to pay them.You might even think the system has been specifically designed to keep ordinary citizens out of it.

So I suggest that policymaking instead focus on outcomes, rather than the alleged means of achieving them. Outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people, so that we can engage with discussion about them, their funding, their relative importance. Such discussion would be more accessible than current policymakers' emphasis on legal pathways, funding arrangements, institutional structures and composition, and other arcana.

Meaningful outcomes: they form one essential element of the Social Policy Bond idea. The other is the injection of market incentives into their achievement: rewarding those who achieve our goals according to their efficiency in actually achieving them. The idea might sound outlandish at first hearing: handing over the solution of our social and environmental problems to investors. But our goals would be discussed and articulated by government - something that democratic governments are quite good at doing. Only their achievement would be subject to the market, which economic theory and all the evidence suggest is the most efficient way of allocating society's scarce resources. No doubt the Social Policy Bond idea could do with some discussion and refinement. But the real question is: what is the alternative? To continue as we are doing, where the gap between vested interests and ordinary people grows ever wider, risks, in my view, social collapse.

For more about Social Policy Bonds see the Social Policy Bonds homepage.

02 October 2019

Harlem trendsetters

Years ago John Fund asked:
“If you had a financial windfall and wanted to help the poor, would you even think about giving time or a check to the government?” Source
A story from the current Economist reinforces the sentiment behind that question: 
Harlem is a neighbourhood in upper Manhattan that was once a byword for poverty, crime and urban failure. It was a place where, as recently as 1980, black men had a lower life expectancy than in Bangladesh. Large parts of it look different today. Life expectancy has soared, and the neighbourhood has improved dramatically. Although a considerable share of children there—35%—remain poor, their life chances still look much better than a generation earlier.
That is in no small part because of the efforts of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a non-profit group which has “adopted 100 blocks” and set itself the goal of breaking the intergenerational chain of poverty by providing good parenting advice, healthy food and education. New parents who attend the zone’s Baby College learn about proper nutrition and reading habits for their infants. Older children can attend free, full-day pre-kindergarten and some go on to attend the HCZ network of charter schools. Their impressive initial results are seen as a national model. The zone serves 14,000 children and 14,000 adults at a cost of just $4,600 per person per year (raised from a mix of public and private sources). That is not a large sum of money, points out Anne Williams-Isom, the zone’s boss. “We spend $167,000 on an inmate in Rikers [jail]. How much can enterprise and philanthropy help alleviate American poverty?, 'Economist', 26 September
When I first came up with Social Policy Bonds I thought that government bodies, at any level, would be the issuers. They have far more resources than private charities, non-governmental organisations and philanthropists.

It's true that they, along with other donors, back most of the Social Impact Bonds currently being issued in about 25 countries. But they have shied away from issuing SIBs that target long-term, large-scale goals like raising life expectancy or universal literacy. Imagine the possibilities if government funded such bodies as the Harlem Children's Zone, with their ambitious goals that can be reached only after many years.

I think the main reason Social Policy Bonds haven't been issued is that, unlike SIBs, they are tradeable. This means that the bodies that would receive funding for their projects need not be the same throughout the lifetime of the bond, which could be decades for remote goals such as the elimination of poverty or the achievement of universal literacy. A government that issued Social Policy Bonds would therefore be relinquishing its power to choose the recipients of funds. Under a bond regime the allocation of funds would be up to the market, which would have incentives to choose only the most efficient operators and to terminate failed projects. Bodies currently favoured by government would, if they were inefficient and incapable of adapting, lose their funding under a Social Policy Bond regime. That is a contrast today's funding arrangements. In conventional policy, outstanding failure is rarely penalised (and often rewarded). Even under a SIB regime, inefficient operators, while they wouldn't maximise their returns, wouldn't see their existence be threatened.

Under both conventional policy and SIBs there is the possibility that even bodies as the HCZ well-meaning, hard-working and idealistic as they are at the beginning of their mission, become inefficient. The tendency is for any organisation, be it a trade union, religious body, university, public sector body or monopolistic private sector corporation, to become inefficient or corrupt; forgetting its ideals and devoting most of its energies to self-perpetuation. Examples abound: only today for instance, we read of the huge salaries being paid to top charity employees. Just one recent example:
Former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband is being paid almost $1 million a year to run a humanitarian charity that receives massive sums from British taxpayers. His astonishing pay package as chief executive of International Rescue Committee has soared to $911,796 (£741,883) ... according to the US-based organisation’s latest tax return. Million-dollar Miliband!, mailonline, 1 October
Social Policy Bonds would eliminate that risk. They would generate a new type of organisation - one whose survival would depend absolutely on its efficiency, and whose composition and structure would adapt to changing circumstances. This organisation would be a formal or informal coalition of bondholders, whose every activity would be devoted to achieving society's targeted goal with maximum efficiency. It's unlikely that governments will take the lead here; they are far more comfortable dealing with established players. What about philanthropists? I haven't made much headway there - they probably filter out messages from unconnected members of the public. However, I did publish this article in one of their journals last year. I'm not aware of any follow-up....

For more about Social Policy Bonds see my main page here. For why I am ambivalent about Social Impact Bonds see here and here.