The Challenge of Fictionalized Public Policy Areas

After a long and dispiriting day inspecting prisons, I reluctantly filled an obligation to attend a dinner party. After learning how I had spent my day, several of the guests went on at length about what prisons were like, who was in them, and what should be done about it. Almost everything the guests confidently asserted was factually wrong and dubiously sourced: I hadn’t heard so much discussion of Oz since that girl from Kansas and her dog went over the rainbow.

That’s the opening paragraph of my post at about widely-believed myths of American incarceration. It was stimulated by a recent conversation with a state’s attorney. Both of us had spent a significant amount of time visiting correctional facilities, poring over correctional data and talking to prisoners, wardens and guards. Yet both of us were used to people who had done none of these things giving us their “expert take” on what prisons are like, who is in them and what policies regarding prison should be adopted.

Nobody is informed about all areas of public policy. And most people don’t have trouble admitting that they don’t know anything about, say, the US-Brazil diplomatic relationship, Libor rate management, or sugar subsidies. But for a subset of public policy issues, a large number of completely ignorant people are dead sure they have all the facts (Granted, some arrogant people always feel this way, but put the ego-maniacs aside and look at the bulk of humanity). Prison is one of those areas, and I strongly suspect it is because there is so much fictionalization of it. If I were bored, I am sure I could easily list a hundred movies set in prisons. The Big House is also a common backdrop for TV shows, novels and comic books.

Given the human propensity to be moved more by vivid individual prototypes but insensitive to their representativeness or quantity, a really powerful movie about one fictional prisoner’s experience is probably going to shape public views of prison more than do the weighty Bureau of Justice Statistics tables that I ruin my eyes by reading. Likewise, all the powerful fictionalizations about family farm life, police investigative procedures and military combat probably also shape perceptions in agricultural, criminal justice and defense policy more than their truth-value would warrant.

It’s an impossible study to run, but it would be interesting to know if facts and genuine expertise have greater weight in public policy areas which don’t lend themselves well to fictionalization (e.g., waste water processing, telephonic regulation, pension management) because there aren’t as many people around saying “I know what to do because there was this awesome movie on TV last night…”

Quote of the Day: Barack Obama

cartoonOn the day upon which we honor President Lincoln, this quote by our current President merits reflection:

America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.

Corporate Lysenkoism

If you’re a scientist, and your findings might cost a big company some money, expect that company to try to destroy you, personally as well as professionally.

If you’re a scientist, and your findings might cost a big company some money, expect that company to try to destroy you, personally as well as professionally. Of course, we only get to find out when the effort at least partially fails. If you’re wondering why climate scientists don’t want to give their industry-sponsored critics access to their data, this might provide a hint.

Syngenta’s public-relations team had drafted a list of four goals. The first was “discredit Hayes.” … In 2005, Ford made a long list of methods for discrediting him: “have his work audited by 3rd party,” “ask journals to retract,” “set trap to entice him to sue,” “investigate funding,” “investigate wife.”

Things I’d like to see:

* The universities banding together to provide a defense fund for their faculty, so the Tyrone Hayeses facing corporate persecution and the Michael Manns facing official persecution – always with aid of the wingnut media –don’t have to do so alone.

* Some Senate hearings on Syngenta’s unconscionable behavior, where its flacks and their academic shills had to defend themselves in public.

* Repeal of the ludicrously misnamed “Data Quality Act,” written by corporate lobbyists to keep unsafe products on the market.

* A Presidential order for the EPA to re-analyze the atrazine data.

How The White House Ate the Cabinet

The growth of white houses and the shrinking of cabinet secretaries are intimately linked political phenomena

Among my friend Bill Capron’s many achievements was serving as an economic advisor in the White Houses of JFK and LBJ. As someone who also worked in the Executive Office of the President decades later, what most astounded me about Bill’s experience was that even though he was only an assistant budget director, the Presidents he worked for would sometimes personally telephone him from the Oval Office with economics/budgetary questions. “Who else were they going to call?” Bill asked rhetorically “There just weren’t that many people in the building”.

He was an admirably humble man, but it wasn’t a self-effacing remark: The White House used to comprise a small group of staffers, each with an enormous range of responsibilities (Bill’s portfolio was the entire domestic budget of the United States). Back then, much of the work of policy development was conducted in executive branch agencies rather than at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Today the White House is crammed with a range of policy-related offices and has so many political appointees and civil servants that they now spill out into buildings all over Jackson Square, northwards up 17th street and southwards to G Street (with an expansion to Nebraska Avenue planned).

The growth of the White House is intimately related to the diminished role of cabinet secretaries, which Glenn Thrush vividly described in Politico Magazine and Robert Reich bemoaned in his painfully funny political memoir Locked in the Cabinet. And because these two trends reinforce each other, we should expect both to continue apace in future administrations.

FDR got the ball rolling when he created the Executive Office of the President in 1939, consolidating some functions that were previously done in executive agencies and creating some new responsibilities for his staff as well. But the far more consequential figure — as with so many other aspects of modern American politics — was Richard Nixon. Continue reading “How The White House Ate the Cabinet”