Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Rationalizing political policy-making

Politics is at least as irrational as it is rational — probably more irrational than not. That fact is supported by solid evidence. Simply listening to politicians on both sides makes it clear that the two endlessly warring sides see very different realities and facts in almost every issue they deal with. The two sides apply very different kinds of logic or common sense to what they think they see and they routinely wind up supporting policies that are mutually exclusive.

One side or both can be more right than wrong about any given issue. However, its very hard to imagine both sides being mostly about disputed issues but easy to see that they can both be more wrong than right, assuming there is an objective (not personal or subjective) measure of right and wrong (there isn’t).

A lot like religion
That’s just simple logic. Given the lack of definitions for even basic concepts, e.g., the public interest or what is constitutional and what isn’t, partisan liberal vs. conservative disputes can be seen as akin to religious disputes. People have debated for millennia about which God is the “real” God or what the real God’s words really mean. For religious disputes, there is neither evidence nor defined terms of debate. That makes religious disagreements unresolvable and pointless unless the combatants just happen to decide to agree on something.

Political disagreements are a lot like that. They are usually based on (i) little or no evidence and (ii) subjective personal perceptions of reality and personal ideology or morals. That makes most political disputes unresolvable and pointless. Americans have been bickering for centuries about what the Founding Fathers would have wanted or done about most everything. Those disputes will continue for centuries.

Evidence of innate, unconscious human irrationality about politics from academic research is overwhelming. Humans see and think about the world and issues through a lens of personal ideology or morals and unconscious biases. Unfortunately, personal lenses are powerful fact and logic distorters. When experts are carefully scrutinized and evaluated, their ability to see future events is poor, about the same as random guessing. Some people are exceptions and have real talent, but for the most part expert predictions of future events and policy outcomes are useless.

An easy solution . . . .
Happily, there is a simple way to inject more objectivity and rationality into politics. It amounts to consciously gathering and analyzing data to test policy choices to see how well they do once implemented. That has been suggested from time to time in various contexts, e.g., as an experiment in state’s rights or as policy-making modeled on random controlled trials that are used in medicine to test the safety and efficacy of a new drug or clinical treatment protocol. It really is that simple: just collect data and analyze it and use comparison groups and/or policy variants when it is feasible to do so. Politics can be made more rational if there is a will to it.

. . . that cannot be implemented
Sadly, the easy solution is impossible to implement under America’s deranged two-party system and its corrupt, incompetent brand of partisan politics. In a recent article advocating a random controlled trial approach (RCT) to policy-making, the Economist articulated the implementation problem:
“The electoral cycle is one reason politicians shun RCTs. Rigorous evaluation of a new policy often takes years; reformers want results before the next election. Most politicians are already convinced of the wisdom of their plans and see little point in spending time and money to be proved right. Sometimes they may not care whether a policy works, as long as they are seen to be doing something.”
Evidence from social science research is clear that politicians and experts who are convinced of their own wisdom are far more likely to be wrong than right most of the time, if not always. Finding a solution to that little self-delusion conundrum is a necessary prelude to implementing the obvious, simple solution.

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