The Darwinian Selection of Public Policy Problems

Last week, I had a lively discussion about drug policy with a blazingly smart member of parliament. I explained that there is no true solution to drug problems. Rather, we use public policy to pick the particular sort of drug problem society will have. For example, different policy environments can make it a human rights problem, an addiction problem, a crime problem, an AIDS problem, a public disorder problem etc., but no policy will produce a true ending of all of society’s problems with drugs. There are some policies that ameliorate multiple aspects of the problem, but in most cases we are faced with hard choices about what sort of problem we will have rather than a problem-free alternative. And because people do not agree about which choice is the best, the policy debate is both eternal and unresolvable.

He asked me whether there were other policy problems of this nature. I started to say that policy problems around protections for privacy vs. the value of transparency were an example, and then thought that maybe policy problems around the degree of regulatory power of government versus the freedom of the private sector was a better example, and then realized that I couldn’t think of any current public policy problem that *wasn’t* essentially unsolvable because certain realities were in basic tension.

So I posited to him that public policy problems have been put through a Darwinian selection process in the era of modern government, and all the easy ones have died off. Modern sewerage has eliminated cholera in London and no one is calling for its return. Problem, in short, solved. Ditto constructing and laying out buildings in a fashion that makes another Great Fire impossible. Everything that was solvable has been solved, and died off accordingly in our public policy debates. All that survives are hard choices.

The M.P. pointed out that this is almost never acknowledged. Rather, there is ridiculous rhetoric along the lines of “There is no contradiction between growing the size of our cities and having less countryside” and the like, when in fact there are some essential tensions in our current policy problems and therefore some hard choices to make.

He then challenged me: “Politicians can’t really stand up and say that our problems aren’t solvable. I mean, how would you sell that? What would you put on a bumper sticker to explain that?”

“Life is Dukkha” I said, to his laughter.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

36 thoughts on “The Darwinian Selection of Public Policy Problems”

  1. = = = So I posited to him that public policy problems have been put through a Darwinian selection process in the era of modern government, and all the easy ones have died off. Modern sewerage has eliminated cholera in London and no one is calling for its return. Problem, in short, solved. = = =

    At least in my region of the US, the people in charge of maintaining the infrastructure and the voters responsible for taxing themselves to pay for it don’t see to understand that; we have consumed a good percentage of what was built so laboriously from 1840-1960 with no signs that anyone understands what the long-term consequences are (now medium-term, really).


    1. I’ll second that, though I’d temper it by saying that there’s no argument about whether to have sewer, water, roads (or even how to upgrade them), just about how and when to fund their rebuilding.

      Since much of our infrastructure was built in big chunks (nationally: interstates, locally: our water mains), it’s also ageing out in big chunks, and we haven’t been saving for it (at least locally). It’s awfully easy to ignore these looming problems, especially since terms of office are short in comparison.

      Im my city, we went for a quarter century (!) with a mayor who did not believe in planning; happily our current mayor does, and we at least have a guess for what it will cost to replace our (100-year-old) water mains over the next 20 years. It’s not cheap, but manageable as long as we do it gradually.

      This is a little off-topic, but I’ve wondered how much a city could save for the future through anti-deferred maintenance – sinking one year’s surplus into better quality construction (to last longer) or preemptive maintenance. Even if there were no net gain in cost, the time-shifting of expenses could be valuable.

  2. I might grant Keith that the easy problems have been solved (although Cranky has a good point.) There is no satisfactory solution for hard problems, pretty much by definition. But some of our “solutions” for hard problems are ridiculously suboptimal, with regard to the current unsatisfactory possibility frontier. There may be no dominating good drug policy, for example, but can anybody seriously argue that our current drug policy is anywhere near the best we can do? (Well, uh, yes–politicians seeking reelection might make such a claim, but that entails the rest of us agreeing that their reelection is itself a good thing.)

  3. “So I posited to him that public policy problems have been put through a Darwinian selection process in the era of modern government, and all the easy ones have died off.”

    I would generally agree with this, with the understanding that,

    1. Diminishing returns applies to this, and in the context of things like “modern” sanitation, we’re not exactly talking about the Leviathan. A lot of these problems were solved by government on a scale which would be attacked today as practically anarchy. We could be well into a regime where increased government causes more problems than it solves.

    2. A lot of this can be attributed to increasing wealth and knowledge, too. What motive for sanitation prior to the germ theory of disease? How to implement things you can’t anyway afford?

    But, yes, in the general sense that the low hanging fruit has been picked, and we’re into areas where you lose a foot here for every foot you gain there, I agree. Further gains might require something more nuanced than the one size fits all policies government is best at.

    1. “What motive for sanitation prior to the germ theory of disease?”
      Smell. Ask the Romans.
      The ev.psych explanation for disgust is that it’s a health warning for omnivores, and highly adaptive. Rotten meat, feces, vomit, snot, pus: all disgusting, most germ-laden.

  4. Brett has correctly sensed, Keith, that you’re articulating an old-fashioned conservative view of government. (Would newfangled conservatives really be in favor of public sanitation if it means higher taxes?)

    But I think even the non-nutty conservative view is nonetheless incorrect. There are plenty of opportunities to ameliorate problems, if only the desire could be found to do so.

    Poverty and poor healthcare for the elderly were huge, intractable problems in the U.S. … until they weren’t. Now paying for Medicare is a big problem, but it’s not because a reasonable solution isn’t obvious and available.

    When I was a kid, people used to say, “We can put a man on the moon but we can’t [solve frustrating problem].” Once we find the will to do something – and to accept the necessary tradeoffs, as you note – we can do something as difficult and not-obviously-useful as putting a human being on the moon.

    Maybe the problems are tougher nowadays, but our tools are better, too, if only we’d use them.

    1. Maybe the problems are tougher nowadays, but our tools are better, too, if only we’d use them.

      Maybe I’m aging too much now and sounding like a broken record, but Vonnegut articulated this very well when he lamented: ‘the good earth! we could have saved it if we weren’t so damn cheap and lazy!’.

      I think our problems were easier to solve when our numbers were much lower. Now, ouch.

  5. I think there is still lots of low-hanging fruit, but the people who benefit from the continuing use of less-accessible fruit have gotten better at protecting their interests.

    In the US, I can think of many policies that would be beneficial with minimal tradeoffs:

    Effluent taxes offset by cuts in payroll taxes
    Eliminate/greatly curtail software patents
    Congestion charges
    End of ethanol blending requirement
    Eliminating farm subsidies (replace them with some kind of rural-life subsidy if you think that is important)
    Elimination of pointless regulations (dental hygienists working only with dentists, doctors required to prescribe birth control,etc.)

    Wherever you see successful rent-seeking, there is some low-hanging fruit.

  6. Matt: Your list notably consists mostly of things the government is doing wrong, or should simply stop doing. Most rent seeking is accomplished through government.

    Speaking of congestion charges, I would propose we replace gas taxes as a way of funding roads, with a miles driven tax based on scientifically based road damage classes; One overloaded truck can do thousands of times the damage to the roads per gallon of fuel than a passenger car. I suspect the trucking industry would be very, very different if the costs it imposes were not subsidized by taxes on passenger cars which, while they occupy space on the roads, do not damage them.

    1. a miles driven tax based on scientifically based road damage classes; One overloaded truck can do thousands of times the damage to the roads per gallon of fuel than a passenger car

      Setting aside the question of effective enforcement of this, I like it.

      Passenger cars do cause wear & tear, but on a much lower level than an overloaded truck. A Mini does far less damage than a Suburban, which does far less damage than a commercial truck, which does less than an 18-wheeler, which does less than an overloaded 18-wheeler. Multiplied by miles driven, yeah. Taxation based on that would indeed be an improvement. I’m in.

      1. Look at table 4.5; It’s roughly a 4th power law; A vehicle that weighs twice as much, all things being equal, consumes a bit less than twice the fuel, but causes about 16 times as much road damage.

        We’d probably run to a lot smaller trucks, with more axles, were they taxed on this basis.

        1. Brett, I’m impressed. Not only were you able to point out the anomaly of our current system of taxing vehicles, but you were able to post a link to good details. I know you’re an engineer, but so am I and I didn’t know squat about that, nor would I have had such an information source at my fingertips.

          One thing, though…why do they have all that stuff in kiloNewtons? Hasn’t anybody told UWash we didn’t switch over after all?

          1. My fingertips are Google… I just needed a vague memory of reading something on the subject years ago.

    2. I suspect the trucking industry would be very, very different if the costs it imposes were not subsidized by taxes on passenger cars which, while they occupy space on the roads, do not damage them.

      Buried deep in here, despite the many differences Brett and I share, are our similarities. If everyone paid full price for their externalities, we’d have far, far, far, far fewer problems. We can talk about how to get there and what policies to enact to ensure we do, but there it is: how enviros and libertarians have intersecting interests, however briefly.

        1. Nah, rail can’t manage the last mile. You’d still need some kind of trucking industry. I do agree that, with rational pricing, rail would displace trucking for most long distance hauling.

          1. Well yes. Though in my morning commute, I walk or bike past a number of decrepit rail links, which go into dot-com buildings…
            It used to be rail links into cities. Now, not as much.

            But I also see on interstate 5 a huge number of trucks. Having the trucks pay their own price may just help it work.

  7. Excellent post, Keith. In this context I’ve often adopted (including in an op-Ed on post-9/11 security vs. privacy vs. liberty, the latter two being not at all the same thing) the engineer’s motto: “You want it better, faster, cheaper? I can give you any two out of three.”

  8. It’s a tautology that if your policies are Pareto-efficient – on the welfare production frontier – then all further changes make somebody worse off, and choices get hard. Alternatively, if you’ve eaten all the free lunches, then your next meal has to be paid for.

    There is a category of quasi-Pareto-efficient policies where the welfare cost is very small compared to the benefits, such as compulsory vaccination of children against rubella and measles. Needle exchange might be another. Bazalgette’s sewerage system for London no doubt created a lot of inconvenience, besides not being based on solid science. Pasteur only got started on the germ theory of disease after 1860, when Bazalgette’s drains were almost finished.

    1. if you’ve eaten all the free lunches, then your next meal has to be paid for.

      This is a great turn of phrase that I am going to steal (with attribution of course).

  9. “Politicians can’t really stand up and say that our problems aren’t solvable. I mean, how would you sell that? What would you put on a bumper sticker to explain that?”

    I put this on my bumper sticker: Life is complicated, and important problems are complex. If some politician tells you he has simple solutions, he’s bs’ing you to get elected.

    1. Ken: I have been saying this about drug policy for years…yet the dominant options discussed in the media remain oversimplified proposals who proponents promise a free lunch

  10. A lot of what seem like intractable problems can be boiled down to education. Or rather, the issue of equality of opportunity for children to grow up with the developmental resources they need to mature into socially healthy citizens. Things like crime, neglect, abuse and hardcore substance abuse arise much more disproportionately in these populations.

    So, here is where the huge gap is between policy and effective solutions. There certainly plenty of unknowns, but there are also plenty of knows that aren’t being addressed.

    Right now, we aren’t dealing with the dynamic of locational poverty – the tendency of poverty to concentrate geographically, which leads to large communities of low capital (income/human/social).

    We aren’t dealing with home or neighborhood environments. We have a smattering of non-profits and outreach, but little is coordinated. Most of the interventions we do provide are through a disorganized public education system that is designed more around the concept of teacher as parent/counselor/instructor/mentor. But in over-crowded classes, over-burdened teachers can’t begin to meet the needs of high-risk students. There is little or no systematic integration of family needs intervention. For instance, a student could be struggling in one class, and a teacher can try to help remediate, possibly send the child for counseling (if it hasn’t been cut), but the larger issue of parent situational dynamics is absent, even if there are likely multiple siblings in the same family experiencing problems across multiple district sites.

    I was recently non-reelected (i.e. let go) from a continuation school because I wasn’t providing the kind of direct (whole-class) instruction that the administrator felt was necessary for academic achievement. My pedagogical approach was to emphasize personal relationship building and individualized instruction, which didn’t fit into his assessment model, and thus resulted in my receiving low evaluation scores. Unlike the other teachers at the school, as a new hire I lacked tenure, and thus even though my instructional method (favoring relationship-building and emotional rehabilitation over rigid adherence to unrealistic standards) was fortunately the norm at the school – the teachers here are practically saints considering the clientele – I wasn’t immune from administrative autocracy. (Nothing could make this point better than staff meetings devoted to improving test scores, when our population has a drop-out rate of over 50%, severe substance abuse and mental health issues, and a majority of whom do have little motivation to do work in class – often because they are too high – much less on a state test for which they have zero explicit incentive to do well on).

    This is symptomatic of a larger “no excuses” trend in education that assumes that a child’s emotional, behavioral and cognitive development are largely irrelevant to instruction, and that a “well-designed” lesson is essentially a cure-all for what can be an extensive legacy of developmental deficiencies. Thus, something like ongoing trauma at home must be ignored in favor of an authoritarian model of instruction in which the teacher is expected to be capable of adequately remediating entirely on his or her own, alone in a classroom of 25-35 students.

    Implicit in this pedagogical assumption is the explicit disregard for student needs that years of research and behavioral theory have proven true. For instance, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model, before a student can achieve high-level cognition, fundamental stresses need to be resolved. Many at-risk students enter class after having suffered any number of environmental stressors that put them at a very low operational level. For instance, if your dad was drunk and beating your mother (or you) the night prior, it is going to be difficult to concentrate on the process of DNA base pairing. Further, the concept of the Proximal Zone of Development shows that learning is context-dependent, and a student with a 3rd grade reading level shouldn’t be asked to study 11th grade material.

    These are the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts underlying so much of the teacher anger surrounding current education reform that emphasizes union-busting charters, pay-performance, and other “accountability” measures designed around the assumption that bad teaching is to blame – an assumption itself based on the notion that teacher efficacy should be able to remediate even the starkest developmental and sociological deficiencies. Of course teacher quality matters and you can always find great teachers doing great things. But this would be true in multiple domains, and yet we are generally not so foolish in basing our performance expectations on outliers in other fields.

    So, why do we do this in education? I think the reason is twofold. First, the stakes are so high – we know now more than ever the importance of human capital, both in terms of self-efficacy as well as democratic egalitarianism, and public education is naturally the primary policy response. Second, as I have outlined above, there is a deep failure to grasp the magnitude of the challenges, and thus it is apparently quite easy for people not familiar with the front lines of low-SES education to adopt a simplistic, naïve perspective and buy into misguided solutions.

    These two dynamics Рsocial imperative and naivet̩ Рconspire to create a policy environment in which easy answers are prescribed for serious problems, leading inevitably to a sense of frustration and powerlessness. Compounding this problem is our tendency to want to find scapegoats, easily identifiable characters around which we can build convenient narratives; if only these simple obstacles were removed, our story would have a happy ending. But to extend the fairy tale analogy, single-minded, quixotic adventures distract us and waste time better spent targeting specific problems and integrating them into more reality-based approaches.

    Generally, we have not done this in education. Our failure to properly grapple with the problem has led to vastly wasteful expenditures in time and money, as millions of teachers across the country have been asked to do the impossible in lieu of serious state and federal policy designed to tackle the roots of low-SES developmental patterns. The system we exist in now is largely socially Darwinian, in that those with sufficient levels of human and social capital are able to survive and develop adequately, while those without are stranded in a wasteland of broken, uneven or simply nonexistent policy. As misguided policy prescriptions based on flawed assumptions continue to fail, we continue to risk a subsequently misguided sense that generational poverty and the SES achievement gap are intractable problems.

    1. Sorry, it was a social meeting set up by a mutual friend, so I don’t feel comfortable citing names

  11. “So I posited to him that public policy problems have been put through a Darwinian selection process”

    Yah, except that “Darwinian” describes a process of descent with modification and (natural) selection; it necessitates common ancestry. So. I’m not sure what you describe is “Darwinian” in any sense that a biologist would recognise. Unless, of course, you’re actually arguing that all life’s problems evolved from Original Sin, in which case I’d dearly love to see your diagram of the tree of strife.

  12. The simplest problem is where to get the money and the answer should be from the wealthy.

  13. Yes. This is Arrows Theorem in a new setting, or a version of the incompleteness theorem. Well observed, well stated.

  14. After reading all the comments I skipped in my delight at finding that someone besides Ken Arrow had recognized an impossibility, I hasten to add that I interviewed James Hansen of NASA/Columbia U. Yesterday as he came to promote his “Fee and Dividend” proposal … $10 per ton carbon emissions now, plus $10 more per ton each year until $100 per ton, levied at the wellhead/mine mouth/ import terminus, AND with an equivalent duty on imported goods if they were not already subject to an equivalent tax. With ALL money returned to all legal residents monthly. By his calculus, 60% of americans will get more from the rebates than they will pay in higher costs for goods and services. Makes the discussion of road taxes moot in all likelihood … Add a serious carbon tax plus certainty and most stupidity (SUVs, cross country trucking) evaporates instantly.

  15. “Makes the discussion of road taxes moot in all likelihood”

    Right, because all we want to do is reduce fuel usage, we don’t give a damn about maintaining the roads, or shifting towards a vehicle mix that makes that more cost-effective.

    1. Can you think of another country that pays for road maintenance by hypothecated taxes?
      I’m not a purist on this – sometimes hypothecation is necessary to secure public support for a tax and expenditure, or (as with Social Security) to underline the contractual nature of a public obligation, but you have to admit the general point that hypothecation is usually an inefficient way to run a public or private budget.

      1. Well, technically, profits from Germany’s truck-toll system are exclusively used for the maintenance of Germany’s federal motorways (this is an actual law — “Finanzierungskreislauf Straße” if you want to google for it and are reasonably fluent in German).

        In practice, this didn’t change the German federal budget at all; tax revenues were simply reallocated. However, it still is presumed to have some benefits (such as guaranteeing financing for a certain amount of infrastructure projects regardless of the state of the economy).

        Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the implementation to tell you whether the benefits are real or hypothetical; I only know that the law was advocated for by the ADAC (Germany’s equivalent of the AAA), and the ADAC is to cars and speed limits in Germany what the NRA is to guns and gun control laws in America.

      2. In this case I’m more concerned with creating an incentive system to not damage roads. If you have to pay for the damage you’ll do, you’ll properly balance the cost of road maintainance against other factors, such as fuel economy and vehicle costs.

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