25 January 2020

The sad, infuriating, truth about our climate target

David Roberts writes:
Humanity has put more CO2 in the atmosphere since 1988, when climate scientist James Hansen first testified to Congress about the danger of climate change, than it did in all of history prior.... No country has implemented anything close to the policies necessary to establish an emissions trajectory toward 1.5˚C; many, including the US and Brazil, are hurtling in the other direction. The sad truth about our boldest climate target, vox.com, 3 January
What can I say without repeating myself? Six years ago I wrote that Kyoto is doomed. and that Kyoto is a dog's breakfast. Four years ago I repeated myself, saying wrote that current climate policy is doomed to fail

Less irritatingly, I've asked whether we should be more concerned about the effects of climate change than on climate change itself. One of the advantages, as I see it, of a Social Policy Bond regime is that it perforce, and at the outset, specify very clearly what we want to achieve. As applied to the climate change problem we would express our policy goal as a combination of physical, social, biological and financial measures that must fall within specified ranges for a sustained period. Only then would holders of Climate Stability Bonds be paid out. These bonds would, in effect, contract out the achievement of our multiple climate goals to the private sector, leaving it to respond to our ever-expanding scientific and technical knowledge. Current policy is rigid and arrogant, in that it is based entirely on current science and assumptions about future trends. It cannot adapt to new knowledge. These are other reasons why it's failed to capture the public imagination and hasn't, in fact, achieved anything. We need a multitude of diverse, adaptive approaches to achieving our goals relating to climate change and its impacts - many of which will have nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions. Climate Stability Bonds would encourage them. Current policy, as well as being politically divisive, imposing extremely high upfront costs, and achieving nothing, will not.

13 January 2020

Mickey Mouse micro-objectives: rape statistics

In our complex societies, the alternative to coherent, meaningful, goals expressed in numbers are incoherent, meaningless goals expressed in numbers. That's bad enough, but there are times when numerical targets are devised such that they are not just devoid of meaning, but work in ways contrary to their ostensible intention. Here is one recently reported example:

Pinellas Sheriff’s Office boosts its rape stats without solving cases, Allison Ross, 'Tampa Bay Times', 5 January

Image result for mickey mouse
The details aren't important: it's a familiar story. The problem with this, and other Mickey Mouse micro-objectives, is that the numerical target is uncorrelated to any aspect of societal well-being. They sound good, these targets, and they might have started out as well intentioned. But they are too easily devised or perverted by people with an interest in avoiding effort. People can get away with this because few of us will challenge such high-sounding goals as 'reducing rapes', or 'dealing with crime', or 'reducing climate change'. Only in retrospect do we see how the targets and indicators associated with such ideals are so poorly or cynically designed that they have the effect of nullifying their stated goals.

The case for Social Policy Bonds rest on two pillars. One is the channelling of market forces into the achievement of our goals. The other, though, is the precise definition of these goals. For any quantitative measures of progress, our goals should not only be meaningful to ordinary people. They should be ends in themselves or inextricably linked to those ends. They need to be broad and long term, so that solving one problem can't occur simply by creating others, or shifting the problem into another region, or kicking the can down the road.

So how would Social Policy Bonds deal with rape? One way forward could be to target for reduction -  nationally - the numbers of people in anonymous surveys who respond 'yes' when asked whether they have been raped. That could form one of an array of indicators, which could include some that are currently used. All such indicators would have to fall within a prescribed range for a sustained period before the bonds would be redeemed. Choosing these indicators wouldn't be simple. But what is the alternative?

For more about Social Policy Bonds see SocialGoals.com

04 January 2020

Input legitimacy: the Swiss approach

The Economist writes:
One of the great arguments for democracy is what Fritz Schapf, a German scholar of politics, calls “input legitimacy”. Even if a system does not give people what they want, the fact that those running it reflect a democratic choice is legitimising. Can technology plan economies and destroy democracy?, the 'Economist', 18 December 2019
 This chimes with some decades-old research done in Switzerland. It is a shame that the Swiss model of ‘direct democracy’ is something of an outlier. Switzerland has a federal structure whose 26 cantons have use assorted instruments of direct democracy, notably initiatives to change the canton’s constitution, and referendums to stop new laws, change existing ones, or prevent new public spending. Cantons vary in the ease with which these instruments can be used. Research by Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich showed that, even after allowing for other variables, the more democratic the canton, the more people living there reported being happy. The effect is significant:
 [T]he marginal effect of direct democracy on happiness [was found to be] nearly half as big as the effect of moving from the lowest monthly income band (SFr980-1,285, or $660-865) to the highest (SFr4,501 and above). Happiness is a warm vote, the 'Economist', 15 April 1999
By looking at the reported happiness of foreigners (that is, people who cannot vote in the referendums) living in the Swiss cantons, the researchers found that it wasn’t just the effect of the decisions made by direct democracy that led to greater well-being. The participation in the process itself accounted for most of the increased happiness.

This is a position I have long advocated. Social Policy Bonds would target outcomes: transparent, verifiable outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people. Discussion and debate about these outcomes and their priority is inherently more accessible to ordinary people. The current political systems in most democracies rarely declares their goals (if they have any) in terms that mean anything to natural persons. Their goals have more to do with retaining power, and usually mean favourable treatment for the most powerful, especially government agencies and big business, at the expense of small businesses and ordinary citizens. The system gets away with this, because its goals are expressed vaguely if at all, and policymaking takes the form of recondite, legalistic discussion about institutional structures and funding. Social Policy Bonds in contrast would subordinate all such processes to meaningful, explicit goals. This would draw more people into the political process. As the long-standing research into Swiss direct democracy shows, this is an end in itself, as well as a means to greater well-being.