Wednesday 21 February 2018

The Voluntary Future

I'll be speaking today at Optimistic Futures. Ten of us will be giving the 8-minute version of what we each see as an optimistic vision for 2070. I suspect we will have radically different utopias; hopefully they aren't all mutually incompatible.

This is my optimistic vision. It is hardly a prediction of what will happen, but is rather what I'd like to see happen, anchored by the constraint of not being completely implausible.
Good morning. I’m Eric Crampton, Chief Economist with the New Zealand Initiative; I also do a bit of small bit of lecturing here at Vic in Public Economics.

I love today’s project brief. Think of your most optimistic future. Usually economists are asked to make forecasts, and nobody is able to really get those things right. This time, I don’t even have to think about what’s likely, just about what I’d like to be likely. I will constrain my optimism a bit to keep it within the bounds of the potentially plausible.

In my most optimistic future, radical life extension has arrived by 2050. I was born in 1976, so radical life extension’s going to be even more important to me by 2050. Biotech will have developed along with implantable technology so we’ll be having incredibly interesting conversations about what it means to be human. In In the same way that electricity, cars, home appliances, televisions, computers and smartphones went from being luxury toys for the rich to being cheap, reliable tools within the ready reach of the vast majority, so too will biological enhancements. Health will have become cheap – a solved problem.

And Roko’s Basilisk never showed up.

But while all of that is part of my most optimistic future, it’s not what I mostly want to talk about today. I want to talk instead about something I know a little bit more about: how these developments could affect how we change how we solve the generalised problem of living together peaceably – how we govern ourselves.

I’m an optimist about people, and an optimist about technology. But more particularly I’m an optimist about New Zealand.

I moved here fifteen years ago because it seemed to be the best place in the world. By and large, government works well – or at least far less badly than in a lot of other places. In the 1980s and 90s, New Zealand figured out that small countries at the far end of the world that are remote from any of their major markets simply cannot afford the kinds of very silly policies that are common overseas. New Zealand could never afford to throw the kinds of resources at airport security that America turned to in reaction to 9/11, so we didn’t.

New Zealand just doesn’t go for the kinds of knee-jerk policies that larger places are prone to – because we can’t afford them. Kipling said the world would belong to the one who can keep their wits about them when all are losing theirs – that’s us. And it’s us in part because of something Ernest Rutherford pointed out: because we haven’t the money, we’ve had to think.

So where does that take us for 2050? My optimistic vision has three main components. Radical subsidiarity, effective altruism on steroids, and decision markets.

Let’s take a minute with each of these.

Effective altruism is a movement started around a decade ago. It argues that aid should focus on the places where it can do most good. It currently argues that most people are not giving nearly enough to charity, but at least as importantly they’re giving badly: every scarce dollar of aid should go to the place where it can do the absolute most good.

On the path to 2050, we’ll see a shift in government assistance towards greater focus on helping NGOs who can do good work. NGOs will approach the social investment agency with the outcomes they want to improve; SIA will tell them the funding available depending on how much good they do, and big data approaches within government will test outcomes. Good practice will spread.
But government is clunky. It has a hard time shutting down programmes that don’t work, and it’s frustrating to deal with. Bureaucracy always limits the good that civil society can do because of fear of the chance anything bad might happen that might annoy the Minister. The government, and the effective altruism movement, will kickstart the move towards effectiveness evaluation. But civil society will take over from there, interpreting bureaucratic failure as damage and routing around it. As data improves, effectiveness evaluation will become simpler for the voluntary sector as well – government’s advantage in data aggregation will erode more than it already has. The end result: communities able to do more good themselves.

Second, decision markets. Again, current government programmes may kickstart this. Treasury and the Labour government have rightly pointed out that we need a bevy of outcome measures to evaluate how well the country is doing – not just GDP. When we have those measures, we can have forecasts of the measures. When we can have forecasts of the measures, we can have futures markets in the measures. And when we can have futures markets in the measures, we can have combinatorial markets of the effects of policy on the whole set of measures. Instead of having Treasury trying to forecast outcomes across a wide assortment of indicators and too few economists to get the job done, we’ll crowdsource it.

New Zealand was actually making some progress in this area in the late 2000s. We had the world’s best real money prediction market, iPredict. The Vogons in the National Party killed it, but in my optimistic future, the 2018 Labour government took a more flexible approach to the regulations and allowed it to come back. The market quickly starts trading on the environmental, social and economic outcomes Treasury is reporting on, and combinatorial markets let us get a crowdsourced assessment of the effects of policy on different outcomes. We then start having far better information to form the basis for policy – not just the views of the boffins and the Wellington insiders who are good at writing submissions.

Finally, radical subsidiarity. I expect the decision markets would quickly show that we would get better outcomes if communities could make more of their own choices, rather than being led by central government all the time. New Zealand has one of the world’s most centralised governments. In my optimistic future, central government will have shrunk considerably, allowing far more room for decisions to be made at the local level. Communities will be empowered to set the rules that work for them – and as critically, people will be able to easily shift to find the community that works best for them.

That radical subsidiarity also will make it easier for New Zealand to adapt to the tech changes to come. We do have some deeply conservative communities in New Zealand that have barely managed to get their heads around same sex marriage and for whom drug legalisation remains terrifying – transhumanism will be a tough sell. Allowing beachheads for far more liberal approaches – and for experimentation in figuring out what works! – will help build broader acceptance for diverse ways of living and diverse ways of being.

That’s my optimistic future. By 2050, we won’t be arguing about which policies work: we’ll be betting on them and implementing the ones that the crowd’s wisdom has endorsed. We won’t be arguing about how to live; we’ll be moving to the parts of New Zealand that fit our preferred lives and providing the best possible argument for diversity: demonstration. And we will have stopped turning to central government for solutions to everything and will instead look first to ourselves and to our communities, because that’s where the real solutions lie.

And New Zealand will still be the very best place to live, in a much better world.
Thank you. 

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