Asymmetric Paternalism

Asymmetric Paternalism

While writing about the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, I have primarily focused on an idea that the authors call Libertarian Paternalism. The idea is to structure choices and use nudges (slight incentives and structural approaches) to guide people toward making the best possible decision as judged by themselves. Maintaining free choice and the option to investigate or chose alternatives is an important piece of the concept, as is the belief that we will influence people’s decisions no matter what, so we should use that influence in a responsible way to help foster good decision-making.

 

But the authors also ask if it is reasonable to go a step beyond Libertarian Paternalism. Is it reasonable for choice architects, governments, and employers to go further than gentle nudges in decision situations? Are there situations where decision-making is too important to be left to the people, where paternalistic decision-making is actually best? Sunstein and Thaler present an introduction to Asymmetric Paternalism as one possible step beyond Libertarian Paternalism.

 

“A good approach to thinking about these problems has been proposed by a collection of behavioral economists and lawyers under the rubric of Asymmetric Paternalism. Their guiding principle is that we should design policies that help the least sophisticated people in society while imposing the smallest possible costs on the most sophisticated.”

 

This approach is appealing in many ways, but also walks the line between elitism, the marginalization of entire segments of society, and maximizing good decision-making. I hate having to make lots of decisions regarding appropriate tax filings, I don’t want to have to make decisions on lots of household appliances, and I don’t really want to have to spend too much time figuring out exactly what maintenance schedule is the best for all of my cars. However, I do want to get into the weeds of my healthcare plan, I want to micromanage my exercise routine, and I want to select all the raw ingredients that go into the dinners and lunches that I cook. On some decisions that I make, I want to outsource my decision-making and I would often be happy with having someone else make a decision so that I don’t have to. But in other areas, I feel very sophisticated in my decision-making approach, and I want to have maximum choice and freedom. Asymmetric Paternalism seems like a good system for those of us who care deeply about some issues, are experts in some areas, and want to maintain full decision-making in the areas we care about, while exporting decision-making in other areas to other people.

 

Of course, prejudices, biases, and people’s self-interest can ruin this approach. What would happen if we allowed ourselves to deem entire groups of people as unworthy of making decisions for themselves by default? Could they ever recover and be able to exercise their freedom to chose in important areas like housing, retirement, and investment spaces? Would we be able to operate for long periods of time under a system of Asymmetric Paternalism without the system devolving due to our biases and prejudices? These are real fears, and while we might like to selectively trade off decision-making when it is convenient for us, we also have to fear that someone else will be making decisions for us that are self-serving for someone other than ourselves.

 

The point, according to Sunstein and Thaler, would be to maintain the freedom of decision-making for everyone, but to structure choices in a way where those with less interest and less ability to make the best decisions are guided more strongly toward what is likely the best option for them. However, we can see how this system of asymmetric paternalism would get out of control. How do we decide where the appropriate level is to draw the line between strong guidance and outright choosing for people? Would people voluntarily give up their ability to chose and overtime hand over too many decisions without an ability to get their decision authority back? Transparency in the process may help, but it might not be enough to make sure the system works.
Availability Cascades

Availability Cascades

This morning, while reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, I came across an idea that was new to me. Harari writes, “Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. … Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it.”  The idea is that chaotic systems, like societies and cultures, are distinct from chaotic systems like the weather. We can model the weather, and it won’t change based on what we forecast. When we model elections, on the other hand, there is a chance that people, and ultimately the outcome of the election, will be influenced by the predictions we make.  The chaos is responsive to the way we think about that chaos. A hurricane doesn’t care where we think it is going to make landfall, but voters in a state may care quite a bit and potentially change their behavior if they think their state could change the outcome of an election.

 

This ties in with the note from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow which I had selected to write about today. Kahneman writes about availability cascades in his book, and they are a piece of the feedback mechanism described by Harari in level two chaos systems. Kaneman writes:

 

“An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. One some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried.”

 

We can think about any action or event that people and governments might take as requiring a certain action potential in order to take place. A certain amount of energy, interest, and attention is required for social action to take place. The action potential can be small, such as a red light being enough of an impetus to cause multiple people to stop their cars at an intersection, or monumental, such as a major health crisis being necessary to spur emergency financial actions from the Federal Government. Availability cascades create a set of triggers which can enhance the energy, interest, and attention provided to certain events and bolster the likelihood of a public response.

 

2020 has been a series of extreme availability cascades. With a global pandemic, more people are watching news more closely than before. This allows for the increased salience of incident of police brutality, and increases the energy in the public response to such incidents. As a result, more attention has been paid to racial injustice, and large companies have begun to respond in new ways to issues of race and equality, again heightening the energy and interest of the public in demanding action regarding both racial justice and police policy. There are other ways that events could have played out, but availability cascades created feedback mechanisms within a level two chaotic system, opening certain avenues for public and societal action.

 

It is easy to look back and make assessments on what happened, but in the chaos of the moment it is hard to understand what is going on. Availability cascades help describe what we see, and help us think about what might be possible in the future.
Downward Spirals of Drug Addiction

The Downward Spirals of Drug Prohibition

In his book Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari describes the ways in which drug prohibition leads to downward spirals for those dealing with drug addiction. From what he has seen first hand, the drug war doesn’t stop people from using drugs and doesn’t help the planet get closer to a point where no one uses or abuses drugs, but instead creates more drug users. It forces drug addicts to the lowest possible rung on our social ladder and ensures they can never improve their lives.

 

Hari writes, “Prohibition—this policy I have traced across continents and across a century—consists of endlessly spreading downward spirals. People get addicted so we humiliate and shame them until they become more addicted. They then have to feed their habit by persuading more people to buy the drugs from them and become addicted in turn. Then those people need to be humiliated and shamed. And so it goes, on and on.”

 

People who abuse drugs and develop drug addictions are pushed out of our homes, out of public spaces, and out of the work force. We force them into dangerous situations where they can be taken advantage of, abused, and harmed by tainted drugs and needles. When people become so isolated and have no connections to help improve their lives, the only thing they can turn to is more drugs. To finance their habit they begin dealing drugs, often mixing the drug with other substances to have more to sell. They pressure the few people they have connections with to become drug users, so they can have some income to then further their habit.

 

The drug war doesn’t help rehabilitate these people, doesn’t show them that we care about them and want them to get better. It tells them they are worthless, and discourages and degrades them. The entire system creates negative downward spirals in peoples lives, in communities, and in our economy. It propels itself, creating the evil that it lives to fight against.
The Cost of the Status Quo in Policing

The Cost of the Status Quo in Policing

It is not always clear exactly what the cost is of the status quo. Policing is an area that is getting more attention now, and hopefully calls to defund the police are met with serious consideration as to how much money our police forces really need. The status quo in policing is that we spend a lot of money to lock up people we determine to be criminals, but not a lot of money on things that help rehabilitate criminals or prevent crime in the first place. We argue that tight state and federal budgets don’t leave us with enough money for anything other than incarceration, but when we consider just how costly policing really is, we can see that changing the status quo would open a lot of funding for other avenues.

 

Johann Hari addresses this reality in his book Chasing the Scream from 2015. At the time Hari wrote the following about a block in Brooklyn, NY, “In Brownsville, Brooklyn, the state spends one million dollars for every five people it arrests and convicts of midlevel drug offenses.” Our priority for our police has been to go after drug criminals and place steep penalties against them. The harsh costs, society thinks, should go to drug dealers and addicts, but the reality is that the costs fall on society itself. The current movement of defund the police is as much about how we prioritize our resources as it is about stripping the police from their ability to cause physical harm to those they encounter.

 

“In the United States,” Hari writes, “90 percent of the money spent on drug policy goes to policing and punishment, with 10 percent going to treatment and prevention.”

 

We complain about limited resources and being unable to introduce policy to truly make the lives of our fellow citizens better. But we spend huge amounts of money ($5 million dollars on five people) in the costs of arrests, trials, and incarceration. We are willing to pay huge amounts of money to round up the problem and remove it from our sights, but we are not willing to pay money to work with people and help address the problems that spiraled into the even worse problems that we arrest people for having. There are other ways to address crime, drug use, and the dereliction of the lives of the people we incarcerate. Shifting away from an arrest first and police first mindset can open up new resources to better address these problems and challenges.
Police and Violence

The Connection Between Police and Violence

A few weeks back the United States saw huge protests against police violence and use of force by law enforcement officers. That violence and use of force falls disproportionately on minority populations who have been evicted and incarcerated at rates beyond what one would expect given the demographic breakdown of the United States population. Amidst protests of police brutality, in several dramatic and high profile instances, what the United States saw was extreme police aggression toward protesters, bystanders, and media reporters that seemed to confirm the idea that police use of force was out of control and in need of reform.

 

Following the protests, there were questions about whether police presence at protests actually incited more violence than it prevented. People asked if police needed to show up in riot gear at Black Lives Matter protests, and what would happen to the police and during protests if police forces had not shown up with riot gear.  Many argued that the police themselves sparked the violence that they responded to with force – in effect, the argument suggests that police showing up prepared for violence furthered the violence.

 

The idea that police enforcement lead to an increase in violence is one that I came across about a year ago while reading Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream. In the book, Hari argues that greater drug enforcement and more police action against drug users and dealers leads to more crime, not less. He writes, “Professor John Miron of Harvard University has studied the murder statistics and found that statistical analysis shows consistently that higher [police] enforcement [against drug dealers] is associated with higher homicide, even controlling for other factors. This effect is confirmed in many other studies.”

 

Arresting drug dealers and gang members doesn’t reduce the demand for drugs in a given region. Arresting low level drug dealers and gangsters doesn’t lead to much other than an arrest record for the individual, making it hard for them to find legitimate work, leaving drug dealing as one of the few lucrative opportunities available. Arresting a high level drug dealer or gangster creates instability. If you remove a leader in the drug trade, then a power vacuum exists. Competing gang members will vie for the top spot, and might also have to face off against rival gangs to defend their turf. Arrests and enforcement end up creating instability and more violence than they solve. This is part of why homicides increase after a gang member is arrested.

 

Similar to police forces that respond to protests with riot gear, and contribute to the likelihood of people actually rioting, police who arrest gang members and drug dealers actually create more violence and murder, not less. At a time when we are questioning the role and effectiveness of our police services, we should think about whether their actions achieve their intended goals, or whether their actions create a cycle that leads to more police enforcement. If responding in force creates situations for violence violence, then our police should not respond forcefully before it is necessary. If enforcing drug laws creates more violence, then we should ask whether we should be doing something else with our law enforcement.

 

Our police can be what we need them to be and what we ask them to be. The last few decades, what we have asked them to be is a quasi-militant force. The focus was not saving all lives, but on showing force and dominance. It is fair to ask if this is the goal we really want for the police, or if we want them to actually contribute to more safety and less violence for all lives in our communities.
A Condescending Impulse

A Condescending Impulse

In my last few posts I have written about Johann Hari’s research into Harry Anslinger, the nation’s first Commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and what Hari learned about Anslinger and the start of the nation’s war on drugs. Anslinger held deeply racist views which he channeled into propaganda and drug policy in the Untied States. Hari was appalled by what he read, the common newspaper headlines about Anslinger’s raids from the time, and the quotes from the Commissioner himself. Writing about his research, Hari states,

 

“At times, as I read through Harry’s ever-stranger arguments, I wondered: How could a man like this have persuaded so many people? But the answers were lying there, waiting for me, in the piles of letters he received from members of he public, from senators and from presidents. They wanted to be persuaded. They wanted easy answers to complex fears. It’s tempting to feel superior – to condescend to these people – but I suspect this impulse is there in all of us. The public wanted to be told that these deep, complex problems – race, inequality, geopolitics – came down  to a few powders and pills, and if these powders and pills could be wiped from the world, these problems would disappear.” (Underlined text emphasis added by blog author)

 

We live in a complex world and we all lead busy lives that demand a lot of mental energy and attention just to keep the lights on. We hopefully figure out how to be successful and productive in our own lives, but we only ever get a single perspective on the world, our own. We want to believe that we are good people and that success in our society is entirely within the control of the individual (especially if we have become successful ourselves). When we face great uncertainty and complexity which doesn’t seem to line up with experiences of our lives or the heuristics we have developed for how we live, we seek simple answers that confirm what we want to believe. That is what Hari’s quote shows.

 

Anslinger was building a coalition of like-minded individuals with racial prejudices who wanted to be proven right. They feared drugs, and found drug users and addicts to be easy and defenseless targets. Drugs became a simple answer to the complex problems of why some people became dregs on society while others became wealthy successes.

 

Hari’s quote points out that we should recognize this, but not demonize people for it. We should acknowledge that this instinct is within all of us, and we should not fall into this condescending impulse and turn around a vilify those who are vilifying others. We must approach even our enemies and those among us who are wrong and hold dangerous beliefs with empathy. We must understand that the faults we find in them are faults that we too may have. The only way to connect and make real changes is to recognize and acknowledge these fears, and work to demonstrate how these simple answers to complex problems cannot possibly encompass all that is wrong in our societies so that we can move forward with better ideas and policies in the future.
Drug Policy as Electoral Strategy

Drug Policy as an Electoral Strategy

One of my big takeaways as a public policy student at the University of Nevada was that public policy is not detached from our values. We like to think that elected officials and public administration officials are able to look at the world rationally and make judgments based purely on empirical facts, but this is not the case. Our values seep into all of our judgments and influence what we find as good or bad evidence. A good example of this at the federal level is Richard Nixon’s drug policy.

 

Drug policy seems like an area where empiricism and facts would rule. It feels like an area where we could identify the harms of drug use, estimate the social costs of drugs, and set policy accordingly, but American history shows that is not the case. John Hudak examines this history in his book Marijuana: A Short History, and shows how Richard Nixon used propaganda related to drug use to fuel his electoral campaign.

 

Hudak writes, “In fact, crafting public opinion on drug use and crime was central to Richard Nixon’s electoral strategy: he recognized that if he could stoke fears among the public about the drug problem and then position himself as the individual most capable of fighting the war against drugs, he would benefit electorally. In many ways he was right.”

 

Even though we can track drug related crimes, we can record drug overdose deaths, and we can estimate the social cost of drug use, our policies are driven more by fear and the desire to others into villains than by facts. Richard Nixon was clearly a master of understanding and manipulating public opinion, and used this reality to his advantage. Rather than encouraging public opinion to reflect the realities of drug uses, Nixon tied drug use with racial anxiety and resentment in a way that helped his own electoral fortunes. Public policy, Nixon demonstrated, was not swayed primarily by facts and logic, but by fear and irrationality.

 

For those of us who care about an issue and want to see responsible policy regarding the issues we care about, we must understand that empiricism and facts is not the only thing behind public policy. Public policy reflects emotion, power, and influence, and is subject to framing by people whose motives are not always pure. Advocating and supporting good public policy requires that we get beyond facts and figures, and understand the frames being applied to the policy in question.

Considering the Median Centrist Voter

This morning I was listening to a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show and Klein said something interesting in how we think about our politics. Our institutions have their own memories, which are formed and created often by the memories and available histories of the institutions members. In politics today, we have an institutional memory of a time roughly after World War II where a lot seemed to be accomplished and we seemed to be less polarized. This view is our baseline for evaluating political function (or dysfunction) and it includes an idea of a rational moderate voter with both parties trying to adjust their platforms to capture a greater marginal share of this undecided moderate electorate.

 

This institutional memory (whether it is correct/accurate or not) is not what we see in our political system today. We act as if it should be the norm, but it is long gone and we are left with complaints about the loss of this ideal system. Tyler Cowen writes the following about our electorate and perceptions of our electoral system in his book The Complacent Class,

 

“Core government programs are still backed by most voters, but political change at the margins seems to result from complex battles among lobbies, interest groups, financiers, political maneuvering, and who can win public relations campaigns fought in the media. The ideal of the perfectly centrist voter as the ultimate adjudicating force just doesn’t appear that relevant for thinking about a lot of those changes we do observe.”

 

I’m not sure why we still live in a world where we believe that politics should operate in the way we believe it operated almost 70 years ago. Popular media and civics classes present government as ideally functioning in a way that compromises and attempts to sway marginal centrist voters who have not made up their mind. These votes don’t exist, and likely never existed. Better models should be presented and discussed so that we can better evaluate our government and what is or is not taking place within our institutions. By having more honest and open conversations, we can better address the role that identity and policy play in politics (hint: identity is all there is, policy is just a rationalization). Median and moderate voters who have not made up their mind don’t exist in the way we think they used to. They might exist, but more as individuals with identities pulling them in different directions, not as rational voters who are trying to make a decision based on policy outcomes and preferences.

On Redistribution

In the United States people hate the idea of redistribution. I was remarking the other day while reading a political science journal article that American culture operates with a background sense that using public policy to improve ones economic fortunes is illegitimate. The only legitimate way, in American culture, to improve ones economic standing is through hard work in the traditional labor market.

 

This is one contributing factor to why redistribution is viewed so negatively in our country. To be seen as deserving, one has to be seen as hardworking, and hardworking and economically successful are tied in the way we think about people in our country. We use a heuristic to tell ourselves that rich people are hard working and that poor people are lazy because it is easier than considering the alternative, and it also confirms to how we want the world to work, at least if we are relatively well off or see ourselves as becoming more financially successful in the future. We want to believe that our good economic standing and future earnings potential reflect our own industriousness and not just a set of favorable circumstances beyond our control.

 

In their book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at our behavior around redistribution and consider how it fits with the framework for local action that they develop. Redistribution is an area where they find an interesting split between the role of federal and local governments.

 

“Major redistributive policies, such as the earned income tax credit, are best pursued at the federal level. Federal redistribution is more effective than more local efforts because the federal government has a larger pool of income from which to draw and there is less capacity to opt out. Federal redistribution is largely people based. State redistribution is generally linked to providing support for public goods in jurisdictions with taxing capacity disadvantages.”

 

I find it really interesting to think that the federal government’s redistribution programs are more people-based than local programs, but I think I understand why that might be. At the local level, we become upset when we see a person in our community who is accepting some form of assistance from the government while simultaneously driving a new car or leaving a nail salon. In some way, when we see an actual person who is benefiting from a redistributive program and using their resources in a way we find inappropriate given what we judge their priorities to be, we feel cheated. We feel that the economic assistance provided to them should have been spent on other local pressing problems rather than on supporting someone who using the financial aid unwisely. This makes local adoption of redistributive programs for individuals more challenging. At a national level, the quote from Katz and Nowak seems to suggest, we likely won’t recall as many of these hyper-local context examples, or just won’t be as aware of the aid, and won’t be as keen to notice the effects of a redistributive policy.

 

Another local level wrinkle that influences the policy appraoches from Katz and Nowak’s quote is that we don’t want to live in a city or region that is known for its slums. Those of us who are affluent enough will likely make efforts to avoid local trailer home regions and find ways around the lower socioeconomic parts of town. We won’t want to acknowledge these regions because they make our entire community look worse, especially from the outside or when commented on by national media. These pressures may make us more willing to have government take action to “clean-up” these economically depressed regions. We see a personal benefit to ourselves in having our city invest more in economically weak regions. We don’t see the same personal benefit from redistributive programs that help other individuals.

Making Global Local

The first time I heard about globalism was in an English class as a freshman in college. Since that time, globalization has gotten a lot more attention and has come to represent people’s fears about automation and job loss, but also people’s ambitions as new markets across the world become more accessible to trade and innovation. Whether we like globalization or not, we must acknowledge the way that markets and societies are changing so that in our own minds globalization doesn’t remain the mysterious boogeyman that it so often is today.

 

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss globalization and how our cities and metropolitan regions, as opposed to our states or federal institutions, are the most well poised to adapt to an increasingly globalized market and supply chain. The also ask what it means for civil institutions to adapt and change to globalization writing, “The connection between globalization and localism as an arena of enhanced civic action has not been as well explored as the general theme of global economic change and populism.”

 

Since 2016, we have been asking ourselves why a global wave of populism seems to have overtaken normal political processes in the US and UK. Why authoritarian leaders have seemingly become so well entrenched in Turkey and Russia, and why so many people across the globe are willing to protest traditional and seemingly rational governments. What we have not looked at as closely, is how local level leaders can make a huge difference on a global scale and how cities and metropolitan areas can shape policy that influences people’s lives at a greater scale than what we see with movements by populists and authoritarians.

 

Individual states in the US are reversing marijuana policy against the will of the Federal Government. Individual cities are designing their own immigration policy contrary to the demands of the Federal Government. And industries clustered in metropolitan areas are not waiting for new laws and regulations to make decisions that will impact people living within the US and across the globe. The scale of action is local, and that means that cities are the ones who set the agenda for globalization, rather than the larger state governments or federal institutions. How this will ultimately change those larger civil institutions is still a mystery, but in my opinion, local action can dismantle the energy and grievances of populists and authoritarians. Local action can drive economic performance and growth, pacifying the unrest we see at national levels. Globalization might be a phenomenon that connects networks and places all over the Earth, but its effects are felt locally, and good local management and innovation can help make globalization a positive and constructive force.