Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Max Sawicky and Duncan Black on the place of substantive policy analysis:

Max Sawicky writes:

MaxSpeak, You Listen!: WONK THIS WAY: Some people are saying that in an adverse political environment, research or policy are not very important.... [M]aybe I can still convince you this is a mistaken belief.... People don't like unnecessary wars and Congressional corruption, but they aren't crazy about moving to an ample, generous welfare state either. There is no mass outrage over our unsustainable fiscal policy, or the ginormous trade deficits. Concern for poverty in the wake of Katrina has vanished faster than a sunshower. The Bushists may lie like the dickens, but at bottom in many cases their messages are founded on certain commonsensical notions. And not infrequently, Democratic politicians talk absolute rubbish. The Repubs' messages are highly debatable, and from my standpoint invariably wrong, to be sure, but they are not hollow.

For some to discount facts is understandable since they often fail to appreciate how difficult it is to ascertain and document important facts. They dismiss policy analysis and research because they don't do it, don't know how to do it, and don't understand what role it plays in the political process. I know you are begging for some examples, if you are still reading. What was the most important social policy fight this year? It was Social Security. The Bush initiative did not fail because people ran around screaming that investing in stocks is risky. Of course any fool knows that investing is risky, and any fool with enough money is going to invest. I do. So why did privatization go down?

I think in this case the most credit goes to Peter Orszag of Brookings, Jason Furman, currently at New York University, and Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Orszag's work had an impact on AARP, and AARP's voice is significant. Furman did yeoman work as well. Dean had already written a book that anticipated the entire debate. EPI did a raft of papers that I think had an impact on our main audience -- journalists and Hill staff. The fruits of all this sort of work made their way into blogs and mass media, but there were informed sources. It wasn't some tricky advertising guru or dude in pajamas.... When good research gets into Congressional offices, it has an impact, even if you never hear about it. A knowledgeable staffer can look at something he or she disagrees with and still appreciate that it can present a political problem if it circulates....

[T]o give the public something substantive that it can take to heart is the basis for progressive transformation of society.... Otherwise we're looking a rotating bands of miscreants, alternatively taking office, raiding the till, and getting thrown out by the next cohort of miscreants-to-be. If you don't think the Democratic Party doesn't have the same potential for lyin, cheatin, and stealin, you are gravely misinformed. The only constraint on the abuse of power -- besides an opposition lurking in the wings -- is an engaged, informed public. Being angry and stupid isn't good enough...

And DuncanBlack chimes in:

Just to add to the earlier discussion, it wasn't all that long ago that Left Blogistan was dominated by boring boring repetitive wonky wonkery of the most wonkish kind - during the Social Security Bamboozlepalooza tour. The president was lying, the Trustees' various reports were based on contradictory internal assumptions, and journamalists didn't know what the hell was going. We came, we wonk'd, and we kicked some ass.

...adding, I wrote this before reading Max's post but he is of course absolutely right. It was something I left out of the earlier post but shouldn't have. While I don't see wonkery as an especially important part of the day to day public discourse - by pundits, bloggers, columnists, and even politicians - that doesn't mean that the Wonks in Exile shouldn't be toiling away in their wonky dungeons doing the FSM's work. Research should be done, policy proposals written, etc... I just don't think that, in general, such things are an especially important feature of our public debate at the moment. There are exceptions and having the wonky tools in place when they arise is crucial. But even the social security debate was basically a defensive one. Such wonkery is necessary when those moments arise, but there's little point in having public debates about detailed policies which can't possibly pass, etc...

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