President Obama wrote in Time Magazine:
… while you can’t necessarily bend history to your will, you can do your part to see that, in the words of Dr. King, it “bends toward justice.”
“stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”
provide the leverage that shapes the bend, and Public Policy shapes our institutions, formal and informal.
Many of us benefit from the world as it is. We live charmed lives, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs satisfied by and large, with self-actualization an option, whether we make the effort or not. We’ve benefited from the hard work and clear thinking that shaped the institutions we enjoy today.
But not all of us, not even in the wealthy western countries, and certainly not the multitudes subject to weak, exploitative institutions in ascendancy around the world. And so all of us must continue to bend the arc, which means we must shape public policy to spread and strengthen inclusive institutions. Only by constant pressure can we keep the arc of history bent towards justice.
How should we go about deciding which policies should change, how they should change, and what we as individuals must do to see those changes implemented?
Humans make judgments in two very different ways. Sometimes we make decisions very quickly, based on an intuitive sense of what’s right and wrong, facilitated by strong emotional convictions. Kahneman calls this System One thinking. Other times we deliberate carefully, weigh evidence, question our assumptions, look for biases in our reasoning, consider alternatives, and after significant time and effort come to a conclusion. Kahneman calls this System Two. Sapolsky in Behave makes the following point:
“Doing the harder thing” effectively is not an argument for valuing either emotion or cognition more than the other. … we are our most prosocial concerning in-group morality when our rapid, implicit emotions and intuitions dominate, but are most prosocial concerning out-group morality when cognition holds sway.
System One is great when it’s all about Us, but sucks when we need to consider Them and their interests. Inclusive institutions balance the interests of Us and Them. We must apply System Two thinking to public policy questions. Otherwise our institutions wll devolve into exploitation of out-groups by some special in-group.
Contributing on the side of justice, of fairness, requires “doing the harder thing”. We can’t expect it to be easy, but we can look for ways to make it easier.
Making “doing the harder thing” (a bit) Easier
System Two requires a method to overcome the distractions, biases, confounding of facts with interpretation, and thoughtless certainty that dominate policy discussion. What do we need to know to make good choices about public policy?
To choose, first we need alternatives presented in a consistent structure. What responsibility motivates providing these options? Advocacy. Effectively advocating a policy change requires clearly articulating the relevant question, desired outcomes, alternative ideas, arguments, and evidence.
Open Ended Questions
To start we want to make sure the way we’re considering the policy question doesn’t presuppose the answer. “Should we keep immigration visas at current level or decrease them?” narrows the discussion and potential ideas far too much. Better would be, “What should we do about immigration?”
We need to be clear about what outcomes we hope to improve. For example, if we want to improve health care we need to be clear what improvement looks like. Do we want to improve Life Expectancy at Birth? To decrease the number of bankruptcies caused by health issues? To lower the percentage of GDP spent on health care?
We need to identify as many alternative approaches to improving outcomes as we can, rather than focusing in on one that someone has put forward. Proposals should always be compared to alternatives rather than considered in isolation.
Arguments for and against proposed ideas can help us weigh their merits. Arguments that don’t address an idea generate noise that distracts us from choosing.
Arguments interpret evidence. Separating evidence rather than embedding it into an argument allows us to evaluate its quality objectively. We can make sure it wasn’t cherry picked, for example, by choosing the range of time-based data to misrepresent the long term trend.
Prioritizing, Evaluating, Choosing
Some of us have the passion and subject matter knowledge to advocate public policy plans. All of us have to select the questions that will receive our limited attention, define consistent criteria we’ll use to evaluate alternatives, and choose the options that will receive our time and effort.
Given the cost of System Two thinking we need to focus our attention on questions that matter most. As new questions arise, as events shift media attention from one thing to another, we need to decide if the new concern outweighs our current priorities and adjust accordingly.
We easily fall into the trap of opposing one idea for reason x and supporting another idea for reason y, even though the second idea might be even worse considering reason x. To avoid this we need to apply the same criteria, weighted consistently, to all options addressing a particular question.
Rigorously evaluate each alternative by each relative criterion. Rank the options by the resulting scores.
Update Personal Action Plan
Now that we’ve evaluated the options for questions that have our attention we can decide what if anything we’ll do. It maybe that the highest scoring option is to stick with the status quo, in which case you might still choose to act to prevent the adoption of other options. It may be the risk of change or the consequence of change is acceptable, in which case no action is required. Most importantly, doing this work only makes sense if it’s followed by meaningful action.
Extra credit: Model the Domain
- Model the domain of concern so we can simulate proposed actions and understand how involved parties might respond.
You can look here for the source of the metaphor. Obama’s formulation works best for my purpose because achieving the desired outcome requires we each do our part.