We attended last night’s Commonwealth Club event with Francis Fukuyama interviewing Yascha Mounk, author of The People vs Democracy. (I haven’t read the book.)

Mounk argues that populism threatens democracy around the world, including the US. Turkey, Hungary, and Poland are ahead of the curve. He sees Trump following the play book of these illiberal democracies, but badly: his attacks on the judiciary, press, and political opposition emphasize Trump as the victim rather than “the people.” Mounk views that spreading, nearly pervasive sense of victimization as a major contributor to people longing for a strong leader who will protect them by attacking their persecutors–the elites, the immigrants, and of course those lucky, diversity-favored minorities.

These victims share a certainty that a strong leader gets things done, in contrast to ineffective democracies. Policies attempting to address wicked problems like climate change contribute to the sense of incompetent leadership; the strong leader dismisses such concerns as hoaxes. The demagogue identifies and attacks villains with faces, while their opposition focuses on abstract concerns like inequality.

Fukuyama quickly turned the discussion from problem diagnosis to potential responses, and Mounk rattled off a number of ideas:

  • Address the concerns of people impacted by policies. If free trade provides net benefits make sure those bearing the negative consequences receive meaningful redress in a form that recognizes and respects their dignity (that minimizes their victimization).
  • Improve funding for the legislative function to lessen its dependence on lobbyists for expertise.
  • Improve tax effectiveness, eliminate mechanisms that allow the wealthy to avoid taxation.
  • (Unspecified) support for life long learning.
  • Lower housing costs as one way to provide people more economic cushion.
  • Reform campaign finance to decrease the influence of established interests.
  • Reintroduce civics education. Support for democracy is low in younger populations. Look for methods to help people understand how bad the alternatives are.
  • Promulgate inclusive patriotism, that is, emphasize what unites our various tribal affiliations, demonstrate the strength of solidarity. At the same time respect the challenges of each subgroup (though it’s not clear how to do this without feeding everyone’s victimization narrative).

Back to the ineffectiveness of democracies, I think political leaders need to place more emphasis on running the trains on time. All organizations, public and private, generate waste (are inefficient) and fail to achieve their desired outcomes perfectly (are to some degree ineffective). I’ll grant that governments perform somewhat worse compared to private organizations, but it’s a weak compare–in my experience all human institutions are far from optimal. The good news is small execution improvements in very inefficient organizations make for major performance wins, in the same way going from 10 MPG to 12 MPG decreases your cost per mile more than going from 40 MPG to 50 MPG. In fact, our recent populist presidential contender promised to use his business acumen to make these improvements. Doing it for real could help improve trust in our democratic institutions.

As if a topic like “Public Policy” isn’t adequately off-putting in itself, let’s really pile on and start with trying to define it. Why not lose everyone right at the get?

From Wikipedia–Policy:

A policy is a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes.

and Public Policy:

Public policy is the principled guide to action taken by the administrative executive branches of the state with regard to a class of issues, in a manner consistent with law and institutional customs.

A bit further down we get closer to my intent:

Other scholars define public policy as a system of “courses of action, regulatory measures, laws, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives.”

where in my view the list after (my added emphasis) are potential implementation steps of action plans.

In my use a Policy is a plan of action (from here, a Plan) addressing a given concern. That Plan might be to make no changes to the current Plan, and the current Plan might be to take no specific actions relevant to the concern at hand, but that’s still a Plan, and so a Policy.

I don’t accept the “principled guide” and “system of principles” definitions. I’m a Consequentialist, particularly regarding Public Policy. It’s the impact on Outcomes that distinguish Policies one from another.

Some proclaim Principles as a way to dismiss the need for any Plan, arguing that the following the Principles will produce the best possible Outcome, and so no Plan is necessary. I find this insistence supremely unhelpful. In large part it’s a way of expressing an opinion that positions any disagreement as unprincipled, leaving no room for alternatives.

While inadequate in themselves as Public Policy, Principles can play important roles. When applied consistently Principles can make good Criteria with which to evaluate alternatives. Arguments can cite Principles to support or oppose some Idea. Principles can shape the articulation of preferred Outcomes.

Finally I don’t limit Public Policy to government executive administration for two reasons. Public Policy concerns touch all of us, and especially in a

… government of the people, by the people, for the people, … Gettysburg Address

putting Public Policy on the “government” hardly absolves its citizens of active involvement. More fundamentally, Public Policies address complex domains like health care, education, climate change, inequality, and the like. Such domains comprise lightly constrained participants and stakeholders, each with their own intentions, perceptions, and interpretations, each influencing and influenced by the others, all in constant flux. An effective Public Policy, a plan of action, must take this complexity into account. The government might play a role, or multiple roles, but the nature of complex domains precludes requires Policies implemented by more than just the government.

Institutional stability is the part of conservatism that makes sense to me. Disrupting “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior” sounds risky. Inconsistent, unpredictable patterns of behavior in our legal, health care, education, and similar systems sounds unlikely to improve the quality of one’s life. But that risk in no way justifies inaction. The nature of many people’s reality is unacceptable.

Let’s do some no-brainers

Setting priorities is hard work that takes time. Meanwhile, we just need to get cracking on these:

  • Eliminate homelessness with homes
  • Build the power grid we need
  • Eliminate environmental lead
  • Increase spending on police (including training) and decrease spending on incarceration
  • Monitor children for Adverse Childhood Experiences

In a post titled Education and Marriage Sumner shall we say muses on education (and a bit on marriage, off topic for my purposes). His post underscores our inability to understand cause and effect in complex domains.

Marriage and education are highly correlated with positive life outcomes, in many dimensions. Many people believe the causation runs from marriage and education to better life outcomes. Some believe that policies that improve education and encourage higher marriage rates will lead to better societies. This is where I become a bit skeptical.

From this, two Outcomes for education that he ascribes to others:

Increase positive life outcomes. Lead to better societies

Sumner presents an Argument against Ideas that target the second preferred outcome:

The argument I’d like to make is that good educational systems don’t cause good societies; rather good societies cause good educational systems.

He offers some characteristics of a “good society:”

In other words societal quality is related to many variables beyond income, including social cohesion, low levels of violence, lack of tribalism, liberal attitudes in the broadest sense of the word (such as empowering women and allowing dissent), etc.

This provides a starting point for Criteria with which to evaluate policy impacts:

  • Higher social cohesion
  • Lower levels of violence
  • Absence of tribalism
  • Increased empowerment of women
  • Increased tolerance for dissent

He speculates why “intellectuals” might think that education can “help solve society’s problems?”

Partly because they are intellectuals.

Which seems like a weak ad hominem attack?

Partly because at the individual level better educated people do better on average, in many respects.

This seems an argument supporting society investing in education, if the preferred outcome is better individual outcomes in those respects, or if the preferred outcome is a better society and that depends on better individual outcomes.

Partly because the idea appeals to both liberals and conservatives. They might disagree about precisely how the educational system should be improved, but can at least agree that an improvement would significantly improve society.

I’m not sure who this leaves out. If no one, this can be restated as, “Everyone generally agrees that improving education is worthwhile, although they don’t agree on how to improve education.”

He remains skeptical of these arguments that education can contribute to bettering society:

I’ve never met anyone who’s life outcome seemed strongly linked to the quality of their schooling, particularly the parts of education that get all the attention (quality of structures, teachers, curriculum, etc.)

This assertion surprises me. I split my university time between the main campus and a branch campus of a state school. In general the instructor quality at the branch seemed lower than those on the main campus. In Computer Science the main campus had a functioning computer lab, and the branch didn’t, which impacted the quality of those classes there. Of course the school I attended had a much weaker staff than MIT, Stanford, and the UC schools that many of my professional peers attended. I’m not sure how strongly linked these differences were to my and their life outcome(s), but I think the differences mattered.

Nor have I ever participated in a discussion of another person not present (i.e. gossip) that attributed that person’s failings to the schools they went to.

My guess is people harmed by poor school systems don’t occupy much attention in some circles. Sumner seems to focus here on low quality schools, and anecdotal evidence that no one he knows or has heard discussed has achieved lower life outcomes as a consequence of the poor quality of the schools they attended. I don’t think it’s hard to find evidence that better quality education leads to better life outcomes on average:

  • Studies comparing for-profit universities with public and private universities.
  • The impact of the GI Bill on the post World War 2 economy (assuming no school is lower quality than school).

It’s always personal qualities, or a tough home environment.

Given our bias to explain contingent outcomes with stories that make those outcomes seem correct and inevitable, it’s not surprising that “gossip” about others blame their failures on their character flaws.

More importantly this signals the challenge in understanding cause and effect in complex self-adaptive systems (where participants are lightly constrained, have their own intentions and interpretations, and influence and respond to the actions of others). Education outcomes depend on more than school quality (not that we know how to measure that anyway). The strongest predictor of life outcomes isn’t academic test scores; it’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).

I can imagine that there might be cases where education was to blame, but typically those cases are associated with attending schools with a climate of fear, a lack of respect for learning, and a non-supportive home environment. I.e., things that are not easily reformed through public policy.

Here we move from the non-education influences on outcomes to an assertion that those fall beyond the practical reach of public policy. Unsupportive parents, unsafe schools, antiintellectual cultures. They exist, and they can’t be changed, so they must be accepted, as must the impacts they have on others we would like to support if only we could?

FWIW, one reason I support vouchers is that I believe that private schools would be less likely to be dominated by a climate of fear. So I’m not saying policy has no effect.

Great–an Idea:

Use vouchers to support private schools.

With the interesting supporting argument:

Private schools would be less likely to be dominated by a climate of fear.