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Saturday, May 01, 2010

"Flying Blind in Policy Reforms"

Jeff Sachs says "our political system regularly puts around the table people who are not the best equipped to find deep solutions to our problems." He wants outside experts to have more influence in the formulation and execution of major policy changes:

Flying Blind in Policy Reforms, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Commentary, Scientific American: The long and divisive fight over U.S. health care reform exposed basic weaknesses in the processes of governance. As is so often true in American politics these days, politicians and lobbyists kept complex subjects to themselves, pushing expert discussion and systematic public debate to the sidelines. ...
During 14 months of debate over health care, the administration did not put forward a clear, analytical policy white paper on the aims, methods and expected results of the proposed reforms. ... The actual health consequences of the legislation were never reviewed or debated coherently. ...
One might think that the real action had all happened earlier, in congressional hearings, in brainstorming sessions and in the bargaining sessions with key stakeholders. Yet the earlier process was relentlessly driven by political and lobbying calculations and without the informed participation of the American people, who were left to vent at Tea Parties and on blog sites. The mammoth legislation is impenetrable... Experts were never invited systematically to comment or debate about it so as to help the public and politicians understand the issues. The lack of clear policy documents from the administration meant that the public had little basis for reaction other than gut instincts and fearful sentiments fanned by talk-show hosts.
In general, our political system regularly puts around the table people who are not the best equipped to find deep solutions to our problems. Certainly it has also done so on climate change... As with health care, the outcome has been House and Senate draft legislation that lacks public support. The same has been true on Afghanistan: the “war cabinet” has lacked real expertise on that country’s culture, economy and development challenges, and the U.S. public has remained uninformed of true options.
As a start toward better policy making, the administration should put forward a detailed analysis justifying each major proposed policy change. That white paper could form the basis for coherent public debate and reflection, along with Web sites where outside experts would be invited to share opinions accessible to the public. The public, too, would be invited to blog about that position paper. ... The administration and Congress would rely more heavily on external advisory panels to tap into the nation’s wealth of expertise...

I would not presume or recommend that decisions be left to the purported experts, who often represent special interests or have their own biases or narrow views. Still, a systematic vetting of policy options, with recognized experts and the public commenting and debating, will vastly improve on our current policy performance, in which we often fly blind or hand the controls over to narrow interests and viewpoints.

The problem I see, at least in economics, is not so much the absence of experts weighing in on issues. Instead, it's the inability of the press, and hence the public more generally, to distinguish between expert and non-expert opinion. All too often the two are given a false equivalence in a "he said, she said" journalistic construction that obscures and confuses people about the issue. This can even do more harm than good in terms of informing the public.

    Posted by on Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 02:16 PM in Economics, Policy | Permalink  Comments (30)


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