The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated January 12, 2001
Now that we finally know who won the presidential election, some academics will be receiving invitations to serve in the next administration. Many of us dream that knowledge can steer the ship of state toward the public good.
But before loading up the moving van and heading toward Washington, the invitees should reflect a bit. Why do professors think we can get the government to do the right thing, when a typical faculty senate can't even get its university administration to adopt sensible parking policies, or put overhead projectors in the classrooms?
If my experience -- a year on the White House staff as a senior economist with the Council of Economic Advisers -- is any indication, academics who join the new administration may be disappointed. The reasons have little to do with whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge. Rather, they lie in the nature of large, complex institutions that try to make decisions in a contentious atmosphere. In that respect, a government is a lot like a university.
So, with the hope that forewarned academics might have better luck, and with apologies to David Letterman and only slight exaggeration for effect, here are my Top 10 Lessons for the Academic in Government:
1. The government is just large enough to be ineffective. Most of one's time is spent at Big Meetings, at which little happens. That's because if an agency seems about to act, the potential losers will lobby for a seat at the table to protect their interests. The agency will add interest-group representatives to the debate until the threat of action subsides.
A corollary is that people who want a more active government should probably side with those who want to reduce the government's size. Knocking off an agency or two might reduce gridlock and make the government more effective. Conversely, those who don't like government should be leery of efforts to shrink it.
2. The quality of the analysis is inversely proportional to the importance of the issue. This lesson is a cousin of the academic cliché that the intensity of debate is directly related to the triviality of the dispute. A low-visibility issue, because of its isolation, can draw expert talent. But a major matter will involve many Cabinet departments, regulatory agencies, and Congressional subcommittees.
In such cases, the pros and cons have to be presented in terms that everybody can understand. Although each party to the issue may have great expertise in its specialty, the knowledge it has in common with others will be slim. Politics, not the merits of a position, often determines policy decisions, because politics is the only currency that everyone has in common.
3. Presentations should be simple. Important decisions can't be left to underlings with the time to understand them. Those problems climb the food chain to Cabinet secretaries or chairmen of Congressional committees. They are extraordinarily busy people, unable to devote time to any single topic short of World War III. So forget sophisticated analysis. If you can't write out an argument in three sentences or say it 30 seconds, you may as well forget about it.
A graph can be handy, but only if it has just a line or two, going up or down. Lines with peaks and valleys muddle the message, and a graph with more than two lines ceases to be self-explanatory. As a result, you'll inevitably have to leave something important out of the picture when, as is usually the case, more than two factors matter. All you can do is cross your fingers and hope.
4. When it comes to influencing policy, anecdotes trump data. Academic number crunchers like to say that "data" is the plural of "anecdote." But in government, a good story usually beats a library of studies.
To make my case, here is a story: One assignment for my colleagues and me at the Council of Economic Advisers was product-liability reform. In theory, the costs of companies' precautions against liability, and of compensation to people victimized by faulty products, show up in higher prices for the consumer. Whether the public is better off paying more to insure against those faulty products is a tricky question.
That comment and 79 cents might have gotten me a cup of coffee in the Executive Office Building cafeteria. It didn't persuade the bureaucrats and politicians to pay attention to studies on the overall effect on the public of liability reform. All they cared about was the anecdote -- in this case, whether reform would give some individual a big check.
5. With enough assumptions, any policy can be justified. In setting policy, two wrongs can make a right. If there seems to be a monopoly on butter, for instance, we could subsidize bread producers to correct for the harm resulting from inflated butter prices. Although arguments like that may sometimes be sound, smart policymakers can gin up a bunch of assumptions to justify virtually any program. Accordingly, academics may end up not improving policy, but simply rationalizing the inclinations of the Powers That Be.
6. You should stick to the basics. To avoid the scenario in the previous item, rely on fundamental principles instead of tortuous excuses; work toward direct fixes rather than disingenuous gestures. Don't subsidize the bread industry to fix an alleged butter monopoly. If the monopoly is real, put an end to it.
Sticking to basics won't always give the best answer. Every so often, a convoluted approach may be valid. But the occasionally perfect will be the enemy of the generally good if you discard the fundamentals whenever they are politically inconvenient. Standing for principles can help academics in government seem more like experts and less like shills.
7. Consensus democracy breeds sluggish autocracy. Just like academic administrators, politicians place great stock in consensus. I'm not talking about public appearances, where everyone must seem to be on board. What troubles me is the insistence on consensus behind the scenes.
Some of that is understandable. Disagreements force decisions up the chain of command, perhaps all the way to the president. Because the value of a president's time is astronomical, keeping decisions out of the Oval Office is a legitimate goal.
Unfortunately, the resulting emphasis on consensus discourages thinking outside the box. A dissenter risks being blamed for delaying a decision or forcing higher-ups to resolve the dispute. Putting new ideas on the table is easier if decisions are made by majority rule.
8. Parochialism reigns supreme. Political scientists and economists have long recognized that government favors special interests able to twist policy for their own benefit. The public, too dispersed to organize and too busy to watch its back, gets hit with the costs. Anyone going into government should appreciate that fact of political life.
The surprise is that so many agency staff members define their role as advocates for special groups, rather than as analysts engaged in a disinterested search for the best policy.
9. The cynical view is almost right -- but not entirely. The situation need not be hopeless, particularly if some of these lessons are kept in mind. A clever analyst can design policies to benefit both a narrow interest group and the public at large: Food stamps profit agribusiness, but they also help poor families. When powerful constituencies weigh in on both sides of a policy debate, the merits of the case can tilt the balance.
And some issues with a broad social reach may have no tightly organized power group on either side. Balancing the budget or reforming welfare has individual winners and losers. But when no trade association or advocacy coalition stands to win or lose, beliefs about what's best have a better chance to prevail.
10. The talking heads are right, but for the wrong reasons. Most of us learn about Washington from assorted pundits in print and on television, and from late-night comedians. After my year near Ground Zero, my sense is that the talking heads' interpretations are accurate -- not because the heads report reality, but because they can influence the agenda. You can talk up an issue for weeks, but action is unlikely until the newspapers and networks start to pay attention.
In short, if you want to make policy, you might want to skip law, economics, and politics, and try journalism.
After all, isn't that what I'm doing?
Tim Brennan is a professor of policy sciences and economics at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.