Tag Archives: policymaking

Something Different, Continued

Yesterday’s post on the pros and cons of labeling foods with genetically-altered ingredients led to a back-and-forth discussion that exemplifies the real-world problems of policymaking, where matters are seldom black and white.

The discussion illustrated a contemporary reality: given the increasing complexity of the world we inhabit, in many policy domains, few people will fully understand the issues involved. Think climate change, poverty, education, healthcare…and food labeling.

Miriam’s comment raised many of the potential pitfalls involved in labeling; as she noted, in an effort to give people relevant information, we may instead end up misinforming them. In particular, her question “how far do we drill down?” is key. How much information is enough, and how much is too much? How are we defining our terms? What do we include/exclude?

Mort underscores the economic motives of the stakeholders in this particular debate, reminding us of the increasing role that money and influence play in our policymaking, often to the detriment of accuracy and the public good. (The climate change debate is an example.)

What do consumers have a right to know about the products they purchase? What do they need to know?

On the one hand, the vendor/manufacturers’ “trust us” is not only insufficient, it is contrary to the premises of our regulatory structure. On the other hand, both Miriam and Mort are undeniably correct  when they point out that most consumers do not have the background and scientific training needed to evaluate technical information accurately and will either over-react to it or ignore it.

Most of us shake our heads or laugh when the stewardess demonstrates how to buckle a seat belt, or when we read the label on a ladder that warns us against falling off.

We don’t need a nanny state that overprotects us. We do need relevant information that allows us to make informed choices. Deciding where to draw that line–deciding what information should be conveyed–is the hard part.

Yesterday’s exchange reminded me of the old story of the village rabbi who is approached by two men to settle an argument. The first tells his side, and the Rabbi says, “you’re right.” The second tells his side, and once again the Rabbi says, “You’re right.” An onlooker protests: they can’t both be right! To which the Rabbi says, “You, too, are right!”

Policy is complicated. Simple answers and binary choices don’t make for good policy.

Maybe that’s one reason we don’t have much good policy these days.

The Challenges of Complexity

Last night, I attended a dinner in Lafayette. A delightful man at my table turned out to be a retired environmental engineer, and during the conversation, the subject of fracking came up.

I’ve had a good deal of trepidation about the practice, so I was surprised when he said that–done with a reasonable level of care–it doesn’t pose a threat to environmental safety. He also noted that the abundance, and relatively low cost, of natural gas could both lessen our dependence on foreign oil and give the economy a needed boost.

On the way home, I thought about our conversation, and realized that I had absolutely no way to evaluate the accuracy of his observations, or to weigh them against the arguments of those who oppose fracking. I don’t know enough.

The problem is, in so many areas of our communal life, we are all in the position of not knowing enough to make sound, evidence-based decisions. In an increasingly complex world, a world in which none of us can possibly have the knowledge needed to make independent decisions, we have no alternative but to place our trust in experts.

I’ve written a lot about the “trust deficit” in America, and its various causes. This dinner-table conversation focused me on one of the most troubling results of that deficit.

How do we make sound policy decisions when so many of the issues we face require considerable expertise, but we don’t know who has that expertise, who is able to render an unbiased and informed opinion, and who is “in the pocket” of an interest group or otherwise untrustworthy?

What was the old Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times.”

We are.

Tea and Superficiality

I have this mantra that I am sure annoys the hell out of the students in my policy class: “It’s more complicated than that.” It is part of my effort to explain that policy decisions frequently have consequences beyond those that we can easily identify–beyond the superficial issues that pundits exploit for ratings and politicians employ to agitate their bases.

The auto bailout was a perfect example, and in his column today, Brian Howey does a great job of explaining why the policy choice was not the simple matter of “bailing out losers” that Tea Party activists and libertarians evidently believe it was.

As Howey writes

“In December 2008, I attended a hearing in Indianapolis where economists from the Brookings Institute predicted that a collapse of GM and Chrysler could cost the state 150,000 jobs — not just at GM and Chrysler but also at companies like Cummins and hundreds of auto supplier companies scattered in small towns and large across the state.

The multiplier impact from such a collapse could have been devastating. Not only would toolmakers, engineers, assemblers and molders be jobless, but thousands of restaurants and service businesses would have been devastated. Even foreign automakers in the state such as Honda, Toyota and Subaru would have been negatively impacted, because they draw on the same suppliers as GM, Ford and Chrysler. While Indiana has a troublesome and persistent 9 percent jobless rate today, a collapse of GM and Chrysler would have brought a second Great Depression to Indiana. We easily could have seen the jobless rate double or more.

Indiana Republicans were conspicuous in their indifference. Gov. Mitch Daniels warned of the U.S. government throwing “good money after bad” and said the domestics should emulate the Japanese companies. He later castigated the U.S. Supreme Court for the way it acted on Obama’s forced expedited bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler. Treasurer Richard Mourdock, with Daniels cheering him on, tried to thwart the Chrysler merger with Fiat. Republican candidates up and down the food chain derided the Bush bailout.”

Howey’s larger point was political: that the success of the bailout puts Indiana “in play” this November. (I’d add to that the recent passage of Right to Work legislation, which certainly has energized the Democratic base.) But whether Obama wins or loses the state, Howey’s description provides a “teachable” moment for those open to such lessons.

Modern industrialized societies are complex mechanisms. Very few things are as simple as they may once have been (or seemed). A dim recognition of that reality–and the increasingly obvious cultural changes generated by our growing diversity and rapid technological advances–are a not insignificant reason for the national hissy fit being thrown by folks who don’t want to be confused by the damn facts.

Ideologies of all sorts are increasingly incompatible with evidence and complicated realities. If ideologies win out–and it doesn’t much matter which ones–we’re all going to be in a world of hurt.

Pesky Evidence

I’ll admit to being one of the multitude of fans who have made shows like NCIS and CSI such hits. It isn’t that I don’t recognize how unrealistic they are—no publicly financed lab could afford such cutting-edge equipment even if someone invented it—but I love watching the search for hard evidence, and the characters’ willingness to abide by what that evidence shows even when the result is to exonerate some really unattractive suspect.

Wouldn’t it be nice if those we elect to make policy were similarly devoted to evidence-based decision-making?

In the real world, unlike the televised version, policymakers routinely disregard research that doesn’t match their ideological preferences. I’m not talking about a couple of studies where the results are ambiguous, or subject to conflicting interpretation. I’m talking about policies where the evidence is copious and expert consensus compelling. Global climate change is one such area; our incredibly expensive “drug war” is another.

Some years ago, I got a call from a teacher in northern Indiana who wanted to arrange a public forum on the pros and cons of our punitive drug policies. In private conversations, the Chief of Police, a local judge and the prosecutor had all told him that prohibition simply doesn’t work. Not one of them, however, would repeat those sentiments in public. My students who are police officers consistently tell me that alcohol—which is regulated but legal—is a much greater problem than marijuana, because people are more aggressive when they are boozed up than when they are zoned out.

The fiscal consequences of our current policies are staggering. In 2005, an economics professor at Harvard reported that replacing marijuana prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation similar to that used for alcohol would produce combined savings and tax revenues between $10 and $14 billion per year. Estimates from a variety of sources are that marijuana prohibition costs U.S. taxpayers nearly $42 billion dollars a year in criminal justice costs and lost tax revenues. This is just from marijuana prohibition—not efforts to control harder drugs.

Estimates are that the money spent annually on the drug war would pay for a million additional teachers.

Then there are the opportunity costs. Indiana used to have a robust hemp industry. Hemp is an enormously versatile and useful product that cannot be smoked or used as a recreational drug, but our indiscriminate policies outlaw its growth. They also prohibit use of marijuana to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy.

Other states have begun to rethink these policies. Fifteen states have legalized medical marijuana. Oakland, California has begun assessing a sales tax on marijuana sold in marijuana dispensaries.

I recently had a call from a group hoping to convince the Indiana legislature to revisit policies on medical marijuana. The caller asked what the evidence showed.

I told him that the evidence conclusively demonstrated two things: that the drug war is both costly and counterproductive, and that in politics—unlike television—evidence is irrelevant and ideology rules.