Intentions and results are not the same thing. Now, this should seem pretty obvious to most people, but it gets lost in the popular fervor that explodes around most contentious issues. In class we try to discuss some sort of innocuous versions of this application so as to not get people too angry. For example, the intention of the Endangered Species Act is to make species more safe. The actual results of the act are somewhat murkier because the act misaligns the incentives of the people responsible for conservation on the ground with the goal of actual conservation. There are less innocuous examples of course. Policies intended to help workers with criminal records, like “ban the box” provisions in employment, actually make it harder for minority applicants with no criminal record to land jobs.
I can quite literally write 6,000 posts that go through examples of this, but no matter how many examples we see, our tendency as emotional human beings is to think about motivation and not the “colder” view of whether something actually works. But that doesn’t change the fact that the good majority of policy preferences (note I did not say “ideas”). And here is the problem. Of course, we end up blinding ourselves to ideas that actually have a chance or working. But more important, is that such focus on “consensus” motivation as a way of thinking about policy, is that it doesn’t even allow an honest and open conversation about the premise! What premise? That some of these policies may not even be well-intentioned. They may be so misguided that the intentions cannot possibly be what people think they are.
And a challenge in our intellectual and social climate today (or has it always been this way) is that in addition to many people not being interested in argument of ideas on the merits, on the incentives, on the results, we cannot even come near broaching the idea that the premise itself is misguided. Here is an innocuous example. When I grew up playing sports, our coaches worked us very hard. There were good reasons for this. There were times when I had bumps and bruises. There were times when I felt too tired to go on. There were times when I was disheartened after failing to meet a running or lifting goal, or after a hard fought loss. And our coaches regularly encouraged us to work hard, not just because it was going to translate into a better result in the future, but because it was good to do it qua doing it. You may want to colloquialize this as “suck it up,” but that term has been bastardized today. That doesn’t mean that you approve of the shitstorm that this world has become, or the circumstances that led you to have to suck it up, the point was to internalize and focus on the things you can do well, and have control over, and not let it paralyze you on your march toward bigger and better goals.
You cannot, of course, even come close to encouraging people to persevere. And a corollary of that, of course, is to recognize that you cannot even come close to publicly questioning the intentions of a policy. For example, I personally do NOT at all believe that the motivations of the anti-obesity campaign is a benign concern for people’s health. Indeed, I cannot believe that the argument that things like “fat taxes” are done in an effort to curb public medical expenditures. Why? In that case, it is not clear why 100 other policies are not morally and politically enforced to reduce health expenditures. How about banning sports? That would have a HUGE impact on medical costs. And furthermore, the problem in that case is that “we” as a society have decided to practice socialized medicine, and then use that as a total intellectual crowbar to intrude in areas of our lives on the grounds that it is good for health care costs. Further, no one actually thinks seriously about these issues anyway. If you are concerned about health care costs, it’s not at all clear that obesity increases them. If I am obese, I am going to die a lot sooner than if I am not obese. And living longer, even with smaller annual health care expenses, can certainly require a lot more medical expenses over the course of one’s life than if you are larger and die sooner. Indeed, the healthier I am, the more I am likely to spend on end of life palliative and extensive care, and the medical literature is quite clear on how expensive that is. But we do not even get to come close to having that discussion because it is seen as crude, crass and wrongheaded. That is, of course, hugely ironic. I don’t think for a single moment that the popular movements to tax soda and fatty foods and such has much to do with care for the people it is targeting. And I don’t need to be some alarmist libertarian “you are nanny staters” argument here. The argument is about creating power over yet another “out-group” versus your own enlightened “in-group.” Think about it. Do people who are obese not really understand that they are obese? Do they not understand that a segment of the world probably thinks of them differently than other people? Do they not understand that they are likely to suffer from health problems that non-obese people do? No way in h e double hockey stills. The attitude of the elites here is not just wrong it is totally condescending and enfeebling to the people they claim to be wanting to “help.” If I were a little bolder, I’d show you a dozen additional examples here. I feel very sorry for the people that policymakers and the elites are condescending too.
But heaven forbid we point that out. Or heaven forbid we suggest that the intention of some policies is not really what proponents say they are. Take the issue of climate change. The utter stupidity of the “denialist” versus “alarmist” divide is informative. First of all, talk about a weak man argument. The “alarmists” take the very worst examples of someone who questions climate issues, and then uses that as a stand in for ANYONE who actually has serious and legitimate concerns about issues where there is not only no scientific consensus but where it may be impossible to know. Go back to some of my old posts on feedback and the challenges of developing integrated assessment models on the economic side to see an application. And then of course the arguments around climate get all dressed up in “science” as there is such a thing as a scientific “outcome” when of course there is not. Science is a process of inquiry, and continuing evolution toward what may be truth, but in a world that is always changing. But that is all window-dressing. And here, I am about to commit the same weak man argument I just criticized. While there are clearly people out there who worry about our planet and what global warming can do to it, I can assure you that:
(1) Very few of them truly understand the climate science and economics and know how those risks relate to other known and serious risks
(2) Almost no one who vehemently is arguing about climate science is really arguing that. They are using this as a chance to “overturn the horrible system we live under today.” Of course, no one knows what “capitalism’ is, or whether we are living in it, or anything like that. But this is just a big, fat charade of an argument that we see over and over and over again when it comes to arguing any old policy. Think about it. Minimum wages should be raised. Because? Capitalism. Family-friend labor market policies should be enforced. Because? Capitalism. Taxes on the wealthy should be increased. Because? Capitalism. You find any contentious issue of the day, and no one is really debating the intentions or merits of it, people are having crappily veiled arguments about “the economic system” and they are not even doing that so well. So color me sour.
People of good faith and good intentions have been intellectually bullied for as long as I can remember. Again, you should see the names I am called and the attitude I am given not just by people who have never met me, but by people who have met me and totally choose to ignore the ideas we are talking about as separate from the person delivering them. That’s fine insofar as it goes, I don’t ultimately have to stay around and continue doing what I am doing – but I have always said to people, and I have rarely had anyone meet the challenge – you are not going to change my mind about something because you are emotional about it. You are not going to change my mind about something because of some witty facebook post you found, or some snippet from a tv show you like, or from some emotional story that seems to make your point. You are going to change my mind only by explaining how your policy works, and how it works better than either existing policy or the idea that I may be sharing with you. You cannot bully your way into support. It may work for a short while, but that intellectual strategy is in no way sustainable. And finally, it is going to be hard to convince me of an idea of you are not willing to admit somewhere, somehow, that you might be wrong or that your preferred view of the world may in fact be offensive to others, may impose costs on others and may not ultimately work out. I don’t here mean to say I am morally superior to anyone (I am quite a bad person, honestly), but anyone who has sat in class with me has heard me argue from time and time again, that “if my preferred policies were all implemented, I am not at all confident the world we be a really fun place to live.”
There is much more to say, and in a much more pointed way, about the intellectual climate out there. But of course I am not permitted to have an honest conversation about it. It’s too bad too, because I definitely think that being able to do it would do a world of good for a lot of people.
Have a nice weekend.