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A tip for Dominic Cummings: Don’t hire anyone who fails to grasp the power of incentives

A tip for Dominic Cummings: Don’t hire anyone who fails to grasp the power of incentives

The job advert issued by Dominic Cummings for people to work in government has attracted a wide range of comments. One particular focus has been on the sorts of skills he is looking for.

Computer science, forecasting, artificial intelligence, causality theory — all these topics excite his interest. Cummings advocates a small selection of scientific papers with which applicants should be familiar. He believes that humanities graduates are unlikely to be aware of them.

The papers are indeed quite challenging mathematically. Even the smartest arts graduate might struggle to cope with their content simply because of the language — maths — in which they are written.

The implication is that those with expertise in the humanities need not apply. Indeed, economics is conspicuous by its absence from the now notorious reading list.

I can empathise with his focus on the hard sciences. But economics does have one very powerful, general insight into behaviour that Cummings should heed. In fact, everyone — whether working in the civil service, think tanks or university social science departments — should be familiar with it.

It is, quite simply, that agents respond to incentives. When the set of incentives faced by an individual, a company, or a government changes, behaviour changes too. Different decisions are made as a result.

Two snippets of recent news, chosen almost at random, can illustrate the power of the concept.

Beggars have started to travel from Glasgow to Carlisle to ply their trade. In Scotland, the penalty for aggressive begging is up to a year in jail and a £5,000 fine. In England, it is only a £1,000 fine. These facts are sufficient to explain why Carlisle has become more attractive.

On a note that will be more relevant to most people, more than a million people a month now fail to turn up for GP appointments. From June to November last year, a record 7.8m patients did not attend.

This bad behaviour imposes extra costs on the NHS and makes it more difficult for people who really need to see a GP to get appointments.

A simple solution is to charge for visits to the GP surgery. It would not eliminate the problem, but it would make a big difference.  Once having paid, people would be much more likely to turn up.

Any proposal to introduce charges in the NHS causes the left to froth at the mouth. The standard argument is that charges would deter poor people from accessing healthcare.

It does not seem to do so in countries such as Ireland and Sweden. Both charge people to see their doctors. The impact is mitigated in the former by an annual cap on charges, and in the latter low-income people can visit for free. Other EU countries have similar schemes — in France, the principle of health services is pay upfront, get reimbursed later.

It is not necessary to believe that people act in a completely rational way all the time. They obviously don’t. But incentives work. Empirical examples of the principle can be found every day, in every situation.

A simple, sensibly designed set of incentives is worth a tonne of regulation. A clear understanding of this principle should be the key thing Cummings considers when hiring a new set of government “weirdos” to shake up the civil service.

As published in City AM Wednesday 15th January 2020
Image: Trending Topics via Flickr licensed for use CC BY 2.0
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From World War II to the financial crisis, our institutional memory is fading fast

From World War II to the financial crisis, our institutional memory is fading fast

The young contestants on Lord Sugar’s reality TV show The Apprentice sparked outrage last week.

They appeared to have virtually no knowledge about the Second World War.

The online clips of the sequence capture to perfection their expressions of bovine outrage at even being expected to know such an esoteric thing as how long the War lasted. For many viewers, it was a powerful argument for an immediate raising of the voting age to at least 35.

Trying to be fair, I reflected on my own knowledge of the Boer War. The gap between that and my birth is not that much more than the one between World War II and Lord Sugar’s wannabes.

I have to confess that it is very sketchy. I know it was around 1900. The Boers nearly pulled off a shock victory, but our boys pipped them in extra time. And there was a siege at somewhere called Mafeking.

That said, the Second World War is of far more historic significance than Britain’s colonial skirmishes. The participants in The Apprentice might, one would think, be expected to know more about it.

Their ignorance reflects a more general trend towards what can be described as a shortening of cultural memory.

This can be seen in many seemingly unrelated ways.

Baby names, for example, are important indicators of culture. The example may seem slightly frivolous but, as the American polymath Stephen Pinker has written, the choice of name “encapsulates the great contradiction in human life: between the desire to fit in and the desire to be unique”.

Whenever there is a royal birth in the UK, the name given to the new baby enjoys a surge in popularity as people copy what is fashionable. But there is also the desire to give your baby a distinctive name.

In the twenty-first century, the turnover in popularity of names has increased dramatically.  It was steady for almost the whole of the twentieth century – once a name had made it into the top 10, say, it tended to stay there a long time. But the “churn” is now running at a rate nearly 10 times greater.

The outcomes of behaviour on the internet provide a more obvious example. At any point in time, the most popular memes on Twitter or the most viewed videos on YouTube are often millions of times more popular than the average. But their popularity is ephemeral.

In what many would regard as far more serious areas of economic activity, away from popular culture, this shortening of collective memory may have disturbing consequences for all of us.

In financial markets, for example, there is a traditional tale that a crisis happens precisely when the institutional memory of the last crisis has faded. But if traders and decision-makers develop shortened memories, crises could become more frequent.

Already bodies such as the International Monetary Fund are warning about the build-up of private sector debt, even though it is scarcely a decade since such debt precipitated the global financial crisis.

The apparent ignorance of The Apprentice candidates offers a warning to us all.

As published in City AM Wednesday 6th November 2019 
Image: World War Two posters by Andrew Curtis  via Geograph licensed for use CC BY-SA 2.0
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