Tag Archives: policymaking

Sex And The State

Indianapolis’ Pride Celebration gets bigger and better every year–this year, the parade was so crowded with people enjoying the lovely day and the multiple marchers and floats that the “usual subjects”–with their signs proclaiming the sinfulness of “homo” sex– almost escaped notice.

Those “usual subjects”–the scolds who come out of the woodwork to tell LGBTQ folks that God disapproves of them, and the “good Christians” who scream invective at women entering Planned Parenthood clinics–are reminders that Americans have always had a real problem with sex. Not just gay sex, either. Any sex.

Residents of more laid-back countries (no pun intended) have found both America’s excessive religiosity and famous prudishness puzzling, and both of those elements of our political culture are barriers to reasonable policymaking. Most of the country has finally  recognized that statutes forbidding fornication, sodomy and the like didn’t prevent those behaviors, but simply allowed police who were so inclined to harass marginalized folks with what lawyers call “arbitrary and capricious” enforcement.

The gratifying disappearance of these silly statutes, however, doesn’t mean we Americans have lost our obsession with sex. The fights have simply moved to other venues, like abortion, transgender bathrooms and especially sex education policy, where “family values” warriors continue to insist that only abstinence should be taught in the classroom.

Sex education has been a controversial subject for decades as public school officials and parents have debated the best ways to help teenagers avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Not all states require schools to teach sex ed. But many states require sex education instructors to discuss or stress abstinence from sexual activity, with some schools offering abstinence-only programming, which urges kids to wait until marriage and often excludes information about contraceptives.

So-called “comprehensive” sex education programs teach students about abstinence, but (in a nod to hormones and reality) also teach about contraception, sexual health and how to handle unwanted sexual advances. Such curricula are gaining ground in some states.

In 2019, sex education continues to make headlines even as teen pregnancy rates continue to fall. Policymakers in Colorado, California and Alabama have pushed for big changes in the way sex education is taught there. In Colorado, a bill that would ban abstinence-only education in public schools awaits the governor’s signature. The legislation, which also requires that sex education be inclusive for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ), was “one of the most contentious battles of the 2019 legislative session,”according to the Colorado Times Recorder.

In Alabama–home of the recent law banning abortion even in cases of rape or incest– the state’s sex education law requires teachers to emphasize that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” (A bill has been introduced that would change that requirement, but as this is written, it’s still on the books.)

As of 2016, abstinence was a required topic of instruction in states such as Arkansas, South Dakota and Texas…. 29 states, including Florida, Montana and Pennsylvania, did not require their sex education curricula to be based on medically accurate information. In some schools, teachers have been accused of inflating condom failure rates to discourage use.

I know that basing policy on evidence is out of favor in the Age of Trump, but the research is instructive: abstinence-only education results in higher teen birth rates. (And those “virginity pledges” that fundamentalist dads brag about? Researchers found that girls who took pledges were more likely to become pregnant outside of marriage when compared with girls and young women who did not take abstinence pledges.)

Facts are such inconvenient things.

I know it’s heresy, but maybe–just maybe–schools should teach kids medically-and-age appropriate information about their bodies, rather than inaccurate, incomplete or counterproductive information intended to mollify prudes and religious fundamentalists.

If Evidence Mattered….

It’s a depressing time to be teaching public policy.

As I tell my students, there is an analytical process that should be followed by lawmakers who are considering legislation to address a problem, questions that need to be answered before a bill is introduced, let alone voted on.

To wit:

Is this a problem that government can or should address, or is it more properly left to the private and/or nonprofit sector? If it is appropriate for government action, is it the sort of issue that should be handled by government’s own employees, or is it appropriate for contracting out? (There are a number of additional questions we ask to determine that–and judging from the problems that have arisen with “privatization,” it would appear that those questions are seldom asked). Are there potential negative outcomes of the proposed solution(s), and if so, what are they? Do the anticipated benefits of the proposal outweigh the likely costs?

And finally, what do we know about this issue? What does the evidence say?

It may seem obvious that this sort of analysis should always precede policymaking, but too often, laws are based upon ideology rather than a consideration of the available evidence. The recent tax bill is an example. Those who voted for it evidently never heard of Kansas.

School voucher programs are another example.

At the beginning of the voucher experiments, it may have been reasonable to hope that taking poor children out of poorly performing public schools and giving them vouchers to attend private ones would somehow overcome the barriers that make it difficult for poor children in public school classrooms. But as evidence to the contrary has accumulated, policymakers with ideological fixations have ignored or discounted it.

Scholars at the University of Virginia conducted one of the more recent investigations.

For this new study, researchers analyzed data collected from a group of 1,097 kids in nine states who were followed from birth through age 15. The scholars looked at how many had attended private school between kindergarten and their freshman year of high school. They also looked at how the kids performed as ninth graders on a range of benchmarks, including test scores.

When the scholars did a simple comparison, they learned that students who had attended private school at any time in their academic career performed better on most benchmarks than students who only attended public school. But when the scholars controlled for factors related to family resources — the household income-to-needs ratio, for example — they got a very different picture.

They discovered that kids who went to private school and those who only attended public school performed equally as well in the ninth grade in terms of math achievement, literacy, grade-point averages and working memory. They were just as likely to take more rigorous math and science courses, expect to go to college, have behavioral problems and engage in risky behavior such as fighting and smoking.

In other words, the apparent ‘advantages’ of private school education–the academic results that led early voucher proponents to theorize that the private schools were somehow doing something different, something that produced better results –were really due to the socioeconomic advantages of the children whose parents placed them in these schools, not to what went on in the classroom.

In states with voucher programs, desperately-needed resources are being siphoned from the public schools and sent to private, mostly religious schools. This is problematic both fiscally and constitutionally. These programs have been justified by claims that they will improve the academic achievement of children who would otherwise be “trapped” in “failing” public schools. The evidence simply does not support those claims.

it would be comforting to think that the growing body of research–virtually all of which has reached the same conclusion as the Virginia study–would result in policy change.

It would be comforting, but inaccurate. As a friend of mine used to say, you can’t reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.

 

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.