…in their shoes

Two recent entries from Mark here and here rang a bell for me: how many of us understand what we’re really doing when we make consequential decisions for others? Teachers have all been students, though they haven’t all been struggling students, and I’ve had a few who seemed to have no understanding of what it means not to understand. It is perplexing that the form of instruction we seem to think optimal for our students (teaching courses at them) is a way of learning no professor of my acquaintance–and the professors I know are really curious and love to learn stuff–has signed up for after his last degree.

Some doctors have been really ill or experienced very painful or scary therapy, but memory of pain is peculiar, mercifully becoming objective quite soon after (you remember that something hurt, but not actually how it hurt). I don’t advocate giving every doctor a quick hit of bone marrow donation, but they certainly should spend a couple of 24-hr days a year in a hospital bed. Thinking about building design and the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements for wheelchair access once gave me the idea that to take the spirit of the ADA seriously we would require everyone to spend one day a year in a wheelchair, at least in workplaces where it’s practical (not construction sites, not airplanes, etc.), and maybe double the dose for architects and engineers.

My late colleague Bob Leone told me that one of the self-inflicted wounds of General Motors as Toyota started to eat their lunch was that because they were all provided cars and maintenance at company expense as perks, no GM executive had ever bought a car or had one fixed–or had any real idea of what the competition offered their customers.

When we sentence judges to prison, they stop being judges when they come out, so the enlightenment doesn’t pay off in the courtroom, and I bet they have, um, a very different social circle, so it doesn’t pay off so well in corrections policy either. I think Mark is on to something, though: shouldn’t any criminal court judge as a condition of appointment, and as a refresher every decade or so, spend a week in her state’s worst slam as a prisoner? Prosecutors, too? Sheriffs in their jails? This couldn’t replicate the psychological experience of the con who knows he won’t be leaving for years, but it’s better than nothing. Expensive? Well, surely we’d consider a week of continuing education a good investment for all these folks. And if it seems dangerous, I guess that would put the safety provided to prisoners by the corrections system usefully on the public policy table.

More and more I like this idea. Not only would it improve the judgement (either way, I don’t care how it comes out) of judges but it would also mainline experience of an important social institution that’s almost completely invisible now, or portrayed romantically or sensationally on TV, to the educated upper middle class via dinner parties and golf courses. I emphasize, I’m not being Swiftian or coyly suggesting some sort of ironic punishment for these people; judges aren’t doing a bad thing when they sentence convicts. But prisons historically have festered out of sight of the chatterati and consequential decisionmaking elites, and justice would seem a lot more just if we could be sure judges and DAs really know what they were doing: seeming just is as important as being just in this context.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.