When do you sacrifice a policy hit for a principle?

An environmental colleague I respect says throwing ILUC (and the federal Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which I care about much less) and I infer, the coal utility certificate giveways overboard for a climate bill was “a deal they had to make”. Had to? How do we know? Assuredly, one of the ways to screw up as a leader big time is to sacrifice real net gains on the altar of purity; politics is politics, not an exercise in keeping the leader’s robes spotless or a failed bill immaculate. Some deals do have to be made, or should, all things considered.

But there are other ways to screw up. Will the spectacular victory of the ag lobby in the climate bill make them more tractable and agreeable on the next issue; will they understand that they owe Obama something and deliver it? Or will it confirm that having got a hand pretty easily, they might as well expect an arm and a leg next time? Success confers power (usually) and something almost as effective, perceived power (always).

A friend of mine back in the day was a nationally ranked sailboat racer. He related that for the first couple of seasons he was racing, he would have to establish that he could not be cut off in a certain way by using the right-of-way rules to force the boat that tried it to sail off the course all the way to the end of the lake and back with him, so they finished last and next-to-last. Everyone saw this, of course, and at the price of a race or two, he established an important reputation.

Then there’s the issue of knowing how much clout you actually have without ever hitting the wall. Wise and experienced heads will warn you that “if you push too hard here, you will lose the whole bill”. Sometimes they will be right, but they don’t know how hard “too hard” really is, and if your record is never pushing hard enough to lose today’s race, almost certainly you are on the average being too careful and leaving value on the table. Lots of intrinsic bias affects the advice a leader gets from loyal lieutenants. For example, their employment depends on his survival in office – but government’s duty isn’t just to survive in office. Their reputations tend to depend on short-term hits like passing a bill much more than long term ones like whether the bill actually works. Of course pundits and the press are worse than useless, because their product is overgeneralization about who’s strong and who’s weak, and they only get to sell it when they can say this one-dimensional scale has shifted.

I now have a (rebuttable and reversible) view that Obama, and in a similar way the Democratic establishment traumatized by eight years of being bullied, is forming a habit of being rolled much too easily. I think they need to pick an issue or two to push without limit, either succeeding and learning that “too far” is a lot further out than they guessed, or failing and learning where it really is by trading a loss for a data point. And the climate bill is my exhibit A of this excessive caution.

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.