Speaking of Evil Schemes in the Service of Government


No sooner had I written about an anecdote from RI General Treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo that made me think in terms of battles of Good versus Evil than Ted Nesi tweeted:

One of @GinaForRI’s big policy ideas today is using “social impact bonds” in RI.

Ted linked to a Harvard Magazine article that provides a helpful chart of how the concept works.  Basically, the government earmarks some money for a social cause and hires an intermediary to find investors and contractors to do the work.  When another layer, the “evaluator,” determines that the social good has been accomplished, the government releases the funds, with interest.

Naturally, my mind turned to Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man.  As I described last April, the idea is that a conman (implied to be the Devil) takes a trip on a steamboat to ply his trade among the passengers.  To a philanthropist, he speaks of a “world’s charity,” with one feature being that:

In brief, the conversion of the heathen, so far, at least, as depending on human effort, would, by the world’s charity, be let out on contract. So much by bid for converting India, so much for Borneo, so much for Africa. Competition allowed, stimulus would be given. There would be no lethargy of monopoly. … But the main point is the Archimedean money-power that would be brought to bear.

I guess there really is no progressive idea that a Nineteenth Century satirist couldn’t have imagined decades or centuries before.

The lesson of the “world’s charity” scheme was that the conman nominated himself as the “provisional treasurer.”  I’m not sure whether the villains’ preferred role in the “social impact bond” plan would be the government, the intermediary, or the evaluator or if, perhaps, its true innovation is to create three times the “provisional treasurers.”