The Policy Analysts Have Assumed the World…

by Kevin Seney

May 12, 2017

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Public policy analysis is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of a field, cobbled together as it is from pieces of civics, law, and economics. The ideal analyst reads Foreign Policy in the morning, creates econometric models in the afternoon, and dispassionately holds forth on the pros and cons of changes to the earned income tax credit after dinner. The field, as it is taught, purports to create generalists who are just as comfortable in the sterile steel and glass buildings of international financial institutions as they are in a humble Works Progress Administration concrete box.

Objectivity is the watchword, Sorkin is the prophet, and Nate Silver is the patron saint. Everything can be measured, the analyst says, or at least approximated. Everything from the market value of a new car to the marginal benefit of another minute on a nature walk. No one actually thinks like this, of course, save maybe the writers of cost-benefit analysis textbooks. But the assumption that everything has a value, including things that cannot be traded on the market, is a necessary underpinning for the task of the analyst. One is reminded of Adorno’s description of mass culture as the lie everyone tells and no one believes. If there were policy-adjacent entities that had no expressible number value, then the analyst’s claim to objectivity comes into question. The activity of policy analysis becomes an elaborate act of storytelling, the fabrication of a separate world of monetized costs and benefits.

Of course, abstractions are useful, and one could make the case that more or less similar individuals would arrive at a similar intuition of the loss in utility caused by a stubbed toe. The trouble is not the abstract or approximate nature of estimates from regressions. The trouble is the field’s failure to state and grapple with its first principles. The analyst’s methods are on loan from neoclassical economists, and, try as they might, economists have not managed to remove the implicit normative foundation from their discipline. Instead, key premises are either left out of the discussion or, better yet, assumed. The decidedly normative history of major concepts, like marginal value, is left out entirely from basic courses in microeconomics. The pure, self-correcting market is cured of its occasional bad impulses with simple theoretical instruments. The peculiar vision of efficiency that the economists worship is unchallenged in its primacy. The empty, negative conception of consumer choice as freedom is, likewise, accepted as given. It is either the case that the a priori truth of these ethical principles is so self-evident that they hardly warrant discussion or that this theoretical excess is screened out, giving the discipline the appearance of total objectivity.

The analyst is ostensibly a critical, impartial observer and interpreter of events. Yet a scientistic orthodoxy is implicit in every memo the analyst writes. The Platonic ideal of policy thinking is refusing to distribute lawn signs on the grounds that there is no scientific evidence that points to their political utility. The analyst is unavoidably a technocrat, and the techne is preserving and reproducing the end of history. Maybe, the analyst hopes, their new paper at the influential think tank will help to close the small gap between Earth, circa 2017, and the best of all possible worlds. The analyst only sees the steady march of history toward progress, with the policy elites in the firing line.

Criticism of existing society is permitted, so long as it cleaves to the fashionable liberal line. Students and faculty agree that redistributive policies are necessary to address the shocking inequality of our times, but the only acceptable solutions are variations on tried-and-true New Deal Democracy or means-tested benefit programs. The leading lights agree that there are statistically significant differences between the experiences of different racial groups, but the diagnosis must be irrational ideas held by many discrete individuals. And, of course, the word “exploitation” is taboo—how can there be exploitation when business leaders and workers enter into contracts as rational actors?

Some of these deficiencies may be inherent to the field. The master of public policy degree alone cannot provide a political consciousness. A policy analyst is not a political theorist, and policy is not politics. It is natural that the analyst, who has completed a professional degree in the field, would treat policy as an end in itself or the closest thing we have to a cure for our social ills. Policy, as the product of an institution, must always exist at a distance from the grassroots and the day-to-day business of politics. At the same time, it does not follow necessarily from the nature of policy that its practitioners must be milquetoast stewards of the state as we know it or, say, apologists for the most damnable deficiencies of free-market liberalism. It does not follow that the analyst must treat a politician who does not understand the fundamentals of his signature policies as a “wonk.” If the analyst recognizes the activity of policy analysis as intrinsically political and founded on value judgments that are far from immutable, the field can become self-critical and open to alternative ideas.

In the end, the deficiencies of American elite culture are reproduced in the field of public policy. The ruling ideas are, after all, the ideas of those who rule. An intellectual elite that tolerates approving references to Pinochet collaborator Milton Friedman in widely-used economics textbooks will not teach its students to think beyond morning in America. Culture aims to preserve itself, and the present one has quite a few powerful allies. But many previous arrangements of the state and civil society preceded the present model of American capitalist democracy. With the Third Way apparently collapsing in on itself around the world, there is little reason to believe that history has truly ended or that this is the last, best form of human civilization. The crises of contemporary life make themselves felt more forcibly each year, and the wonk’s favored tools have done little to slow the approach of global climate catastrophe. Meanwhile, the wonks chide the masses for overturning garbage cans from a safe remove inside their Washington Post offices. Policy analysts ought to be among the vanguard demanding a better way of life, whether it validates musty economic assumptions or not. If the field cannot manage this, we should admit that policy analysis is, at best, irrelevant.

Kevin Seney is a 1st year MPP student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.