18 November 2014

Why We Have No Experience with Policy

The biggest problem with modern politics is that people never experience good policy. Or bad for that matter.

If you go out to eat this evening, you’ll have a clear experience. You might love your dinner and think it’s reasonably priced. You’ll decide to go back the next day or next month but you will act on what you’ve learned. In theory, politics is similar but in practice it’s not.  When it comes to policy, you don’t actually experience it.

To take an obvious example, let’s say that you fund development and education in a poor neighborhood. Let’s say that you sustain this investment long enough – at least a decade or two – that it actually impacts the kids growing up in that neighborhood. So much, in fact, that those kids end up making double what their parents made – even adjusted for inflation. This policy is a raging success.

But what does it really mean to say that you’ve increased the earnings of a 7 year old? Their peak earning years will probably be about 40 years away. Worse, if you just look, say, 15 years out you might actually see lower earnings because these kids – unlike their parents – are still in school in their early 20s and not making any money. Even worse (yes, it gets worse) given they’ve followed jobs for young professionals, there is a very good chance that they won’t be living in that same neighborhood when they do hit their peak earning years. How would voters in an area ever “experience” that return on investment?

And of course it gets even more complicated. Education initiatives can change a dozen times in the dozen years that kids are in K-12. It’s tough to see the impact of programs that are discontinued before teachers have even adapted their curriculum to the initiative. The introduction of new technology like personal computers or nanotech can cause productivity and wages to rise regardless of education policy and the proliferation of outsourcing can cause wages to fall. There’s never just one thing going on and that makes it difficult for the average person to know what difference policies made.

It's only policy wonks who've teased through the data to isolate causes who can - with lots of caveats and uncertainty - say that - all else being equal - this policy is likely to raise wages and this one to depress them, etc. Again, your average voter won't experience that. Meanwhile, your average American is distrustful of experts so they won't listen to these experts and even if they did, the experts who express lots of honest uncertainty will seem less convincing than the politician who speaks with great confidence.

There’s an old quip about the guy who didn’t have 20 years of experience but instead had one year experience 20 times. In politics, it is worse. Whether the policy is economic development, education, environmental, or urban or family planning, the long-term effects of policy rarely are clearly experienced. 

For me, that's just one more reason that systems thinking and systems simulation has to be popularized and taught. It's not enough to let the experts benefit from running models that simulate reality. We could "experience" policy but it would take far better and easier to navigate simulations than anything we have now. Perhaps in a generation people play policy simulations the way that  simulate policies the way that Millennials played video games. 

No comments: