Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Limits of Policy

David Brooks has another good column. His advice and perspective is especially good for those heavily invested in the policy world. The entire column is worth reading, but a good section is quoted below, with my thoughts following:

In her book, “What Money Can’t Buy,” Susan E. Mayer of the University of Chicago calculated what would happen if you could double the income of the poorest Americans. The results would be disappointingly small. Doubling parental income would barely reduce dropout rates of the children. It would have a small effect on reducing teen pregnancy. It would barely improve child outcomes overall.

So when we’re arguing about politics, we should be aware of how policy fits into the larger scheme of cultural and social influences. Bad policy can decimate the social fabric, but good policy can only modestly improve it.

Therefore, the first rule of policy-making should be, don’t promulgate a policy that will destroy social bonds. If you take tribes of people, exile them from their homelands and ship them to strange, arid lands, you’re going to produce bad outcomes for generations. Second, try to establish basic security. If the government can establish a basic level of economic and physical security, people may create a culture of achievement — if you’re lucky. Third, try to use policy to strengthen relationships. The best policies, like good preschool and military service, fortify emotional bonds.

I think he might over-state the case with this line: "Bad policy can decimate the social fabric, but good policy can only modestly improve it." This seems to imply that we are in a "diminishing returns" region in terms of policy quality, where we get a big negative impact if we mess up, but a small positive impact if we do the right thing.

The overall tone of the article certainly seems to fit with recent experience in education policy though. Even radical reforms of the way we structure and fund schools seems to have a relatively small impact relative to the relevant "cultural" factors that Brooks mentions.

1 comment:

Jaakko said...

"Among the delusions which at different periods have possessed themselves of the minds of large masses of the human race, perhaps the most curious — certainly the least creditable — is the modern soi-disant science of political economy, based on the idea that an advantageous code of social action may be determined irrespectively of the influence of social affection."
John Ruskin, Unto This Last