An Introduction to Policy Dollars

Link to Google Doc

One of my most ambitious ideas to date is Policy Dollars. I came up with the idea while thinking about lies and deception in politics, a recurring theme in politics. I, and many other with me, believe that lies and deception has been increasing and I also deem it likely that it keeps on increasing in the near future. Unless we do something about it.

Social media, and other ways of spreading information quickly, has been creeping its way into our lives, for better or for worse. (I believe it is for the better) The speed of which we can share news, opinions, and thoughts have been multiplied by many factors in just a few decades. We are ill-equipped to deal with the implications of this development. We are inclined to believe what others say, especially if the topic is emotional to us, we are bad at judging statistics, and the plethora of disingenuous people that want to further their agenda can use this to their advantage. While this may not be a problem worth spending enormous resources on, I see another problem which is more pressing. Politicians lying and deceiving the public to gain political power.

This goes against the fundamentals of democracy; every individual voter should be able to make an informed decision based on her own values and available information. If that available information is false, then the decision might not be the “true” choice that the individual would have otherwise made.[1] In a, not so distant, future we could live in a world where we make decisions not based on facts and values, but rather lies and deceptions. Solving this problem might instead lead to a, not so distant, future where politics is driven by solutions to real problems.

This is a serious problem. Which is why I have a possible solution, a market in which conscious lies and deceptions are frayed upon and where truth is rewarded with political power. I’m suggesting a market, where each politician in the Swedish parliament gets 1000 policy dollars at the start of each political year. These dollars are used to influence political decisions. Every time there’s a vote in parliament each politician can allocate a number of policy dollars toward either yes or no depending on her stance in the matter. This places additional emphasis on individual values and would make values more important when voting in elections which ought to make politicians more open about their true values, even if they are not convergent with the political party’s values. This makes it possible for politicians to allocate all their policy dollars toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use, which is fine. The important dynamic is that you cannot get more policy dollars. When you have spent them all, you have also spent all your political power.

The political power is coupled to the amount of policy dollars you have. But, how does this stop, or reduce, political lies and deceptions? The same dynamic that regulates political power can also be used to punish lies and deceptions. By making politicians lose policy dollars each time they lie or deceive, we can reduce the lying and deception radically. Every time a politician lies, in interviews, on social media, in a speech, or in any other forum, she loses some of her policy dollars. If one lies very often, one loses a lot of political power.

There are some problems that need to be figured out before this system could be working. We need to establish what a lie is. My suggestion is that lies are statements that can be evaluated and verified through fact-checking. The most obvious examples are statements on statistics, e.g. one politician claims that the share of the population currently living in extreme poverty is 50%, which can be directly verified or discarded. On the other hand, value statements cannot be lies, e.g. one politician says, “I believe that effective climate policies are not the way to go, since I think that we instead should get other countries to take responsibility instead”.

This solution would be enforced by a new, independent, government agency. This agency would have a number of employees, each assigned to fact-checking the statements, posts, and speeches of n politicians (depending on how many employees there are at the agency). One of the problems this would bring is a risk of the agency losing its independence through cooperation between employees and politicians. A way to handle this would be to rotate the politicians to different employees each month, or each week. Employee 1 gets 10 politicians each week, which are randomly changed from week to week. This would make it harder for politicians to gain advantages through contacts at the agency.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this idea! How it can be developed, changed, or discarded. Maybe there’s an alternative idea which could give better results.

[1] I have some other thoughts on politics and optimal decisions, but I’ll leave them to another post.

2 thoughts on “An Introduction to Policy Dollars”

  1. I think this idea has some great benefits! I especially like that voting moves from being a dichotomy (yes or no) to more of a ‘spectrum’ (an extent yes or no). I sympathize with the problem of lies and deceptions being problematic for our society and politics in general, and although your brilliant idea has a thoughtful approach to solving this, I still have some questions that challenges it 🙂

    If we establish a governmental agency that would employ people from our society, wouldn’t they be biased with “popular opinions”? How do you think that would effect the agency’s task of fact checking lies and deceptions? Who will select and employ employees? And because it is a governmental agency, how do you think that will affect the general trust from the public of the task being done accurately and truthfully? Eg how could it ensure transparency? What happens if conspiracies about this agency brainwashing our society emerge?

    How would the agency allocate its resources across all the politicians? Will hierarchical level matter? Eg. Will the prime minister be fact checked to a greater extent? Or number of appearances on television? Who would decide this?

    This were just some of my thoughts when reading and thinking critically about this 🙂

    1. I like your thoughts! You are right that there are many problems with the idea, especially in the selection and usage of employees. Rotating, so that no employee spends too much time fact-checking any single politician for a longer time would help with corruption but it does not solve general biases. For example, there has been a meme about SVT only having employees that vote for Miljöpartiet, a similar situation would likely be a problem.

      What I have come to view as the larger problem though is that policy dollars may incentivize a new kind of speaking, which may defeat its very purpose. I think politicians will start speaking in ways that cannot be captured in fact-checks, which can allow them to keep deceiving and lying.

      Overall, a while after I came up with the idea, I feel like it is not very likely that this idea is net-positive in the way I would have wanted. Thank you for your comment! 😀

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