Policy Versus Personality

A major benefit of the transition from Trump to Biden is that we have an opportunity to leave the politics of personality and return to boring and oh-so-welcome debates about public policy. Rather than acrimonious exchanges pitting those of us who were appalled by the buffoon and his incompetent mafia appointments against those who endorsed his assault on American values, we are gradually returning to arguments about lawmaking.

I thought about that change as I was going through some of my old teaching materials, and came across notes for my lecture on the requisites of good public policy. Since the demotion of Mitch McConnell means we may actually see policies enacted rather than stymied, I thought I’d share them.

Consider it a framework for further discussion….

The first question lawmakers must address is firmly rooted in political philosophy: does this proposal lie an area that government should control or even be involved in? Americans have very different ideas about the proper scope and authority of the state, and those ideas will affect the perceived legitimacy of any policy chosen.

One of the reasons that issues like equal civil rights for LBGTQ citizens and women’s control over their own reproduction are so salient and contested is because they begin with a profound disagreement over the legitimacy of government laws that are seen (I believe correctly)as privileging some religious beliefs over others.

This question—the right of government to decide certain matters—underlies many other policy debates. (Masks, for example.)To what extent should government dictate business practices? What areas of the economy should be left to market forces, and what services should be delivered collectively?

Disagreements about the propriety of government action are at the heart of many policy debates.

Once there is agreement that government action is appropriate, however, there are four further elements that will determine whether the policy that emerges is sound.

First, we need to agree upon both the existence and nature of the problem. Is the growing economic gap between rich and poor a problem, or simply an expected attribute of market economies? If it is problematic, why? What accounts for its growth and existence, and why and how is it damaging? Is there unacceptable racism in American policing? How do we know? If so, why has it persisted? If those making policy cannot agree that a situation or condition or existing law is a problem, and cannot agree on why it is a problem, correcting it is obviously impossible.

Second, once policymakers concur on the existence and nature of the problem, they will need to come to some agreement on the efficacy of proposed solutions. If there is agreement that the gap between rich and poor is impeding economic growth and generating social unrest, they will need to determine the probable causes of that gap, and analyze the probable consequences of the various steps being advocated to diminish it. Which “fixes” are likely to accomplish the goal? What does the available evidence suggest?Do the policymakers even agree upon the outlines of that goal, let alone the likelihood that a specific approach will accomplish it?

Third, does government have the ability to implement the solution that is chosen? Does the unit of government making the decision have the authority to impose it? Is the chosen remedy something that government can do? Would enforcement violate Constitutional principles or democratic norms?

If a proposed policy meets these standards—if there is agreement on the existence and nature of the problem, agreement on a chosen remedy, and the ability to implement it without doing violence to the country’s legal framework—a fourth necessity (and one most often ignored) arises: Are policymakers willing to evaluate the consequences of that policy? Are they willing to monitor its effectiveness and modify or reverse it if it doesn’t work, or has unanticipated negative consequences?

As I used to tell my students, Ideological, cultural and economic interests make each of these steps difficult. But difficult is not impossible–if  we elect people of good will who understand that their mission is to advance the common good.

Okay…we need to work on that last bit…


  1. I’m glad you added that “last bit” because I was going to recommend that you remove those rose-colored glasses.

    We need to accept that our elected officials don’t represent the people who voted for them in the last election. Maybe at the local level, and I even wonder about that as I watch the “decision-makers” in my small community. Now, they refer to themselves as “leaders.”

    I digress.

    Your framework would work well if we lived in a democracy as outlined in our ancient constitution, but no so well in our existing oligarchy where decisions are made from the top-down. There is no people’s power remaining in this country which is why there are so much protesting and rebellions. The people are resisting the oppression they feel.

    And, as a result of this phony billionaire-funded insurrection, it is about to get worse. Much worse as the private sector techies clamp down with their government-directed orders to censor their users.

    So, who do you think will hold the powerful accountable?

    A Fourth Estate which ranks 45th globally as a free press. LOL

    By the way, Biden’s DOJ has to make a decision on Julian Assange’s fate today. Does Biden remember how he reached the decision under Obama’s legacy, or will he uphold Trump’s reckless decision to charge a journalist under the Espionage Act?

    Americans are inundated with 24/7 propaganda that they have no concept of what real journalism is all about.


  2. Some people who presume to be sentient still tend to confuse terms like “propaganda” and “journalism”. It’s true that many who pass themselves off as journalists – like Fox News – are compelled to produce propaganda, because the unthinking populace needs to have their pre-determined and self-manufactured pictures of reality fed daily.

    While some still beat at the walls of the past, real progress isn’t made until those breaking the law are held accountable, and the truly conscientious citizens promote the truth without the millstone of bias, prejudice or their own vision through their own prism. It’s why I could never be a journalist. I was just an op-ed writer. I must have said some valuable things, because even in central Texas our op-ed page won a state award for excellence.

    It’s great to see the Biden administration governing. That’s the idea. Throwing bricks at this new administration is counter-productive and worthless. Promoting good ideas and supporting those who are trying to make good things happen for the majority is what it takes. After all, 70+% of the polled Americans approve of Biden’s relief package, and almost 60% approve of his overall job performance.

    How’s the new CDC looking these days? Schools? Let’s open them when it’s time and run them through the next school year to catch our kids up on what they’ve missed. No summer vacation this time. It’s the price we have to pay to not die.

  3. I think there are other questions including: Whose ox is being gored? How can we achieve enlightened self interest, as opposed to simple self interest? There are other questions, but if we don’t answer these first, we can’t get the policy right.

  4. There are more things to consider…who will win and who will lose from this? How can we soften the losses? How can this be “gamed” by those we didn’t intend to help win? What are some potential unintended consequences? Do we need to pilot this and try it out to see what happens?

  5. It would be great if representatives in Congress could put principles above power and if they would understand that both conservatives and progressives can work together to create policies that may work better if ideas from both sides are incorporated.

    It’s my understanding also that lobbyists on K street are involved in writing the bills for Congress. That is the way a corporate oligarchy works. I rather doubt that this oligarchy has the greater good at the heart of their concern. It seems to me they are more concerned about maintaining their power and wealth even if it destroys the ecosystems of the earth and as a result, destroys the human race.

  6. “This question—the right of government to decide certain matters—underlies many other policy debates. (Masks, for example.)To what extent should government dictate business practices? What areas of the economy should be left to market forces, and what services should be delivered collectively?”

    “Before enlightenment we chopped wood and carried water; after enlightenment we chop wood and carry water.” Life goes on at its own pace with or without enlightenment of government decisions…except during this Covid-19 Pandemic. We still have elected officials who have the right and the responsibility to act but are ignoring their Oath of Office and doing nothing or taking their time to make these decisions and while no decisions are being made and services not being delivered people are dying. And it always gets down to Follow The Money the unwritten policy of government under all administrations.

  7. What’s life about?

    Some would say themselves. After all, theirs is the only life that they control. Why shouldn’t they optimize that because if they don’t nobody else will. Also, they know that that’s how all others are, so the others in the world are actively putting themselves first and if I don’t put myself first then I will be second or worse. That’s the basis for athletics, business, religion, and mating to name a few. Control all situations or you will lose.

    Others believe that while all of that is necessary, it’s far from sufficient. We are each both individual and part of things beyond our skin. Being number one is not all that life is. Being part of something bigger is a coequal part. I can be number two, or number one million and not disappear or fail to satisfy what I need. In fact winning involves letting others win too. That’s joint progress, when everyone wins.

    It takes a great deal of self-awareness to place oneself somewhere on that scale. It’s much easier to position others on that scale, correctly or not.

    Governing is also difficult to do because of that scale. It requires frequent movement between both of those attributes. The job is effectively winning negotiations but for others, constituents and beyond, not yourself. No wonder marginally able people called to govern struggle to make the job within their capabilities. To quote an old meme, they have reached their level of incompetence.

    Business managers struggle with workforce hiring, promoting, and occasionally accepting their failure and firing. We as the electorate struggle even more to define and hire and promote and occasionally accepting our failure and firing those who govern. Every Congressperson is the CEO of a vast enterprise, but it’s one department of something much bigger, the whole enterprise. Who can be surprised at the difficulty? Who can be surprised at how hard it is to run a vast enterprise as a democracy with all stakeholders involved in the hiring, promoting and firing decision?

    Managers make policy decisions. In a democracy we the people who may or may not be competent at managing hire, promote and fire those managers. It’s a terrible way to run an enterprise except for every one of the alternatives.

    It would be great to do it non democratically if not for the fact that there has never been a benign dictator or even majority.

  8. Robin – I get a charge out of hearing from a senator or representative that “I wrote” this or that bill, and though occasionally staff will come up with a bill that’s homemade more often the bill is written by lobbyists of all stripes, ALEC and other front group lawyers (Koch, C of C et al) and you are right in observing that the substance of such bills has little to do with the wants and needs of the everyday citizen, though there is invariably some pretense that such bills are in the public interest. The economist Galbraith in such connection noted the drafting art involved in disguising greedy motives with a cover of morality by such lawyers and thought it was something to behold, and he was right.

    As to the topic today, living in a democracy with a capitalist ecomomy and trying to accommodate all the divergent social, economic and political interests with a cloak of morality is not and will never be a piece of cake. Sheila lays out the nuts and bolts of what is to be considered in our quest for the common good, a morality tale in and of itself. Query as to whether any of the divergent forces, pecuniary, racial, religious or any other interest group is really and honestly in search of the mystical common good, or rather pretending to cloak itself in a Galbraithian morality in a PR exercise. Color me cynical.

    However, being cynical doesn’t solve the problems that inhere in our system of diverging interests. I have no magic wand, nor does anyone else, and if some brilliant political economist did have a magic wand those who felt shorted by its application would increase their campaign contributions to blunt its effects. There comes cynicism again, a negativity borne out of experience, an observation itself cynical. Is there no end?

    What to do? We could start with an end to wage and wealth inequality. Perhaps more wherewithal to build aggregate demand in an economy that enriched all participants would provide the necessary “moral” cover for a society in which such diverging interests could take a breather. Perhaps.

  9. I certainly don’t accept the premise that opposition to abortion rights is based on preference re/religious views. Most people who oppose abortion do not cite religion for their views. They cite their belief as to how fetal life develops – that it’s not just a blob of cells, but a distinct developing human being that deserves protection. I would also note that there are plenty of atheists who oppose abortion. Atheists certainly are not motivated by religion.

    I’ve long said the abortion issue should have been debated in the context of deciding, not at what stage human life begins, but at what stage that life should be legally protected. Obviously conception is way too early. Obviously (for most people I think) abortion up until birth is too late. Roe essentially arbitrarily locked in (under the guise of constitutional interpretation) that states must allow abortion for any reason up until 6 months of pregnancy. While a majority of people say they support Roe v. Wade, just as big a majority say they do not support second term abortions. (Which shows people don’t really know the holding of Roe).

    If given the chance, I think most states would have eventually drawn the line around 3 months. (90% of abortions take place in the first trimester.) Instead Roe subverted the legislative process and has allowed both sides to take the most extreme position knowing that they never have to worry about compromising because the Court has essentially taken the issue away from them.

  10. Republicans never stop campaigning, Democrats feel that because they’ve won the battle the war is over. The Republicans are the Terminator, they never stop! Democrats tend to be the mouse caught on the glue board. Whatever could have been done due to sticktoitness ends up in the trash along with their quest for bipartisanship.

    Maybe it’ll be different this time? Will have to wait and see, but, I already see the media licking their chops during these daily briefings from the White House. I’ve seen Rachel Maddow telling guests that if the current administration isn’t being on the straight and narrow, just come to her and she shall put it on the air and will get it exposed? What? Sometimes we tend to be our own worst enemy! Transparency is one thing, throwing down the gauntlet at this point is unnecessary.

    Barack Obama promised that he would put all governmental debates on bills and such in the public realm. Everything would be on C-SPAN or some other media vehicle. It never happened, and that was the worst thing he could’ve done. Because it would’ve exposed the Republicans for what they were doing at the time, obstructionists obstructing.

    As long as Biden doesn’t capitulate for the sake of bipartisanship, he will be fine. Because people will reap the benefits, even the Republicans, although they would probably claim it’s communism or socialism, LOL!

    But, if people’s lives are better, it shines a new light on that communism and socialism. But people have to feel the change, not just hear about it!

    The time for talking is done, it’s time to do, there are less than 2 years to pack it in, they need to really start packing it in, and stop dillydallying around! This whole 2 years should be turbocharged, let the people see how the government can work for them! If they play it the way they’re supposed to, 2022 will be a landslide for the Democrats!

  11. John – there is nothing like a dreamer. Per my comment yesterday, the GOP has a very solid chance of taking back the Senate. Regarding the House, redistricting will be mostly managed by GOP legislatures and (a bonus) they have already proposed more than 160 laws to suppress voting. What ‘ya drinkin’ bro?

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