Over at The Incidental Economist, I have a post on “sweet spots” in public policy. When you understand sweet spots, you will know that many absolute policy positions many people adopt (e.g., More spending on schools will help children learn more, cutting healthcare spending doesn’t harm health, more cops reduce crime, increased incarceration doesn’t reduce crime etc.) are all, for lack of a better word, wrong. The same policy can be effective, ineffective or counter-productive depending on whether the current intensity at which it is applied is already in the “sweet spot” or not.
If you want to review examples of this phenomenon from education, crime, health and labor policy, please see the TIE piece. What I am writing about here is why the sweet spot reality is so underappreciated when people argue sincerely about public policy (I emphasize sincerely because of course some people know about sweet spots and ignore them anyway to further their own agenda, but here I am talking about people who truly believe what they are saying).
Our cognitive system has frailties. Kahnemann and Tversky showed how vivid, easily-recalled examples seem more representative than they are. Someone may “know” that more education spending always helps kids because they had a highly memorable experience of seeing a crumbling, underfunded school being turned around by additional investment. In contrast, a different person may be aware of a vivid example of where massive spending (e.g., Mark Zuckerburg’s $100 million dollar gift to Newark’s school system) didn’t help kids learn at all. By definition, single examples are going to be sampled from a range of possibilities that may or may not be in the sweet spot for a given policy, and because we are prone to misjudge such easily recalled instances as representative, we are often insensitive to counter examples that fall outside the range whence our example comes.
Slovic and colleagues have identified another important bias known as affective simplicity. Human beings tend to put things in global emotional categories of “good” or “bad”. The more complex, mixed emotion resulting from grasping the reality that the same thing can be good or bad depending on context doesn’t appeal as much. Most of us are thus far more emotionally prone to take in a message like “Cops are no good at their jobs and hiring more never helps” than “Hiring more cops is a good idea sometimes but a bad idea at others”.
Importantly, the limitations of the human mind are accentuated when it comes to emotionally charged issues, and policy debates are often emotionally charged. People understandably have strong feelings about whether we are educating our children adequately, what might reduce our risk of being criminally victimized, who deserves to be in prison and what we should get paid for our labor. A significant body of psychological research has demonstrated that when emotionally aroused — for example when they feel threatened — human beings tend to both take more extreme positions and defend them more vigorously. This is not conducive to appreciating that there are sweet spots where what one passionately believes are true and others points on the curve in which what one passionately believes is false.
Tribalism also blinds us to sweet spots. Jim Messina, a key advisor to President Obama, was pilloried by many U.S. Democrats for working for Tory UK politician David Cameron after the election. To Messina’s critics it seemed that there is a linear left to right political dimension and that Messina had switched sides. This ignored the reality that the range of political debate is not consistent across countries. David Cameron was to the political left of President Obama in many respects, because British politics is well to the left of US politics. There is therefore nothing illogical about someone like Messina believing that there is a public policy sweet spot that is to the right of UK Labour Party and to left of the US Republican Party – there’s a lot of space in there, objectively speaking. But seen tribally and emotionally, Messina was engaging in self-contradictory, traitorous behavior. More generally, tribalism makes it hard for people to appreciate that rather than “their side” being correct all the time and the “enemy” being wrong all the time, there are times when both sides are correct in many policy debates depending on whether we are currently in a policy sweet spot or not.
All of the above factors make honest people overlook the reality of sweet spots in public policies (Again, of course some people ignore this reality dishonestly). To the extent we can overcome these limitations, the more likely we are to make wise policy investments that generate the outcomes we want for society.