Tag Archives: policy analysis

Left, Right, Center

I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t take much to set me off these days, but an op-ed in  yesterday’s New York Times still has my hair on fire. Co-authors were Mark Penn and Andrew Stein; I have no idea who Stein is, but the op-ed’s argument confirms, at least in my mind, Penn’s reputation as the “genius” responsible for the decisions that tanked  Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign against Barack Obama.

The headline tells the story: “Back to the Center, Democrats!” The authors argue that moving the party too far to the left will prevent Democrats from winning races in 2018.

So–what’s wrong with their “analysis”?

For one thing, this argument buys into and reinforces Republican framing. The GOP has been very successful in painting Democrats as “left-wing” (and making “left-wing” a very negative thing to be). In real life, there are a number of positions that don’t fit comfortably within our left/right dichotomy, and a number of others that used to be considered centrist or center-right before the GOP’s radical extremism changed the location of the center.

When I was a Republican candidate for Congress in 1980, my positions were substantially similar to those set out in Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope–and I was routinely accused of being “too conservative.”  By the time Obama ran, the GOP was labeling those positions as “socialist.”

Which brings me to my biggest political pet peeve.

Labels–Left, Right, Center–are a substitute for thought.  They’re a framing device. If I can label you–if I can put you in a pigeonhole–I can dismiss you. You are either “one of us” or “one of them.” Either way, I don’t have to consider your arguments on their merits.

I’ve been bitching about this for a long time. Here’s a paragraph I wrote in 2003:

This mania for labeling people so that we don’t have to engage with them on the validity of their ideas has accelerated during the past few years. Perhaps it is talk radio, with its tendency to reduce everything to name-calling sound-bites. Admittedly, it is much more efficient to call a woman a “feminazi” than to take the time and effort needed to discuss why her positions are untenable. And the tactic certainly isn’t limited to Republicans; Indiana’s very own Evan Bayh has solemnly warned the Democrats against the danger posed by “leftists” like Howard Dean. (I’m not quite sure when Dean’s support for gun rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget became “far left” positions. Perhaps when they were espoused by someone the Senator isn’t supporting.)

Allow me to offer a radical proposal: Democrats–and Republicans–should focus upon the merits of their policy proposals, and worry less about how the opposition (or in this case, inept members of their own party) locate those issues on the political spectrum. Survey research convincingly shows that Democratic positions–shorn of their labels–are overwhelmingly popular with voters.

As Fareed Zakaria recently noted, 

The Democratic economic agenda is broadly popular with the public. More people prefer the party’s views to those of Republicans on taxes, poverty reduction, health care, government benefits, and even climate change and energy policy. In one recent poll, 3 in 4 supported raising the minimum wage to $9. Seventy-two percent wanted to provide pre-K to all 4-year-olds in poor families. Eight in 10 favored expanding food stamps. It is noteworthy that each of these proposals found support from a majority of Republicans.

In a properly functioning political system (which I realize we don’t have), voters consider positions individually and on their merits: is this proposal practical? Will it solve problem A without causing problems B and C? Is it cost-effective? Who will benefit and who will lose?

Labels aren’t just misleading, they are akin to name-calling. And their use discourages informed voting.


Can We Talk About Trade? Probably Not.

When I teach policy analysis, certain barriers to sound analysis tend to recur. At least three of those barriers are pertinent to the current debate about America’s trade policies.

  • Americans tend to be inappropriately “bipolar.” Too many partisans, Left and Right, approach complex policy issues with a “bright line” ideology–doing X is either good or bad. Period. Their world is divided between good guys and “evil-doers,” (to use Bush the Second’s terminology) and there is no middle ground.
  • Although there are certainly some policies that are simply wrong, in most cases, the proper approach to analysis is to ask “how,” not “whether.” That’s because, in most cases, the devil really is in the details; otherwise good policies can fail because they are not properly developed or implemented, and otherwise problematic approaches can be rescued by careful development and thoughtful application.
  • In today’s America, increasing numbers of policy domains are complicated and highly technical. Even well-informed citizens are unable to make independent judgments about the best approach to such matters–examples include telecommunications, arms control, tax policies and multiple other areas. We are increasingly dependent upon experts in the field to assess proposed laws and regulations–and we are increasingly suspicious of the bona fides of those experts.

These challenges to sound policy analysis are front and center in the arguments about trade agreements like the TPP.

On the Left, we have a number of activists who believe that trade agreements inevitably cost American jobs, no matter what their content. This is demonstrably false. Outsourcing and poorly drafted agreements certainly undermine both domestic employment and compensation, but trade also generates jobs and economic growth. According to the U.S.Department of Commerce, in 2008 the United States exported nearly $1.7 trillion in goods and services, exports that supported more than 10 million full- and part-time jobs and accounted for 12.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). (If I find more recent data, I’ll update this post.)

On the Right, we have proponents who support any and all “free trade” proposals, no matter whether the agreements safeguard workers or the environment, and no matter how unbalanced the agreement, because “all trade is good.”

I haven’t followed all of the pronouncements, pro and con, about TPP, but in those I have heard, not one person on either side has identified provisions of that proposed agreement with which he or she agreed or disagreed. It was all or nothing–good or bad.

International trade is complicated, and the negative consequences that partisans cite aren’t necessarily the result of trade itself: the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think-tank, attributes a significant amount of manufacturing job loss to currency manipulation. EPI says that “Global currency manipulation is one of the most important causes of growing U.S. trade deficits, and of unemployment and slow economic growth in the United States and Europe.”

Like technology, trade both displaces workers and creates new kinds of employment.

My point is not to weigh in on the merits of the TPP. Like most Americans, I simply do not know enough–about the terms of the proposed agreement, about the likely cost-benefit ratio, about the context within which the agreement would be implemented–to come to a reasoned conclusion. Like most Americans, I must rely upon the evaluations of people whose expertise and knowledge I trust.

Which brings me to what I have come to identify as one of the most serious problems America faces: a public in which skepticism, cynicism, and a pervasive lack of trust is rampant. We don’t trust the media (or more accurately, we trust only the media sources that confirm our pre-existing biases), we don’t trust government (the result of thirty-plus years of anti-government rhetoric), we don’t trust members of that “other” political party, and increasingly, we don’t trust each other. We sure as hell don’t trust the experts–those elitists!

It’s hard to make policy in that sort of environment.