When to Stop Counting

When to Stop Counting

Yesterday I wrote about the idea of scientific versus political numbers. Scientific numbers are those that we rely on for decision-making. They are not always better and more accurate numbers than political numbers, but they are generally based on some sort of standardized methodology and have a concrete and agreed upon backing to them. Political numbers are more or less guestimates or are formed from sources that are not confirmed to be reliable. While they can end up being more accurate than scientific figures they are harder to accept and justify in decision-making processes. In the end, the default is scientific numbers, but scientific numbers do have a flaw that keeps them from ever becoming what they proport to be. How do we know when it is time to stop counting and when we are ready to move forward with a scientific number rather than fall back on a political number?
Christopher Jencks explores this idea in his book The Homeless by looking at a survey conducted by Martha Burt at the Urban Institute. Jencks writes, “Burt’s survey provides quite a good picture of the visible homeless. It does not tell us much about those who avoid shelters, soup kitchens, and the company of other homeless individuals. I doubt that such people are numerous, but I can see no way of proving this. It is hard enough finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. It is far harder to prove that a haystack contains no more needles.” The quote shows that Burt’s survey was good at identifying the visibly homeless people, but that at some point in the survey a decision was made to stop attempting to count the less visibly homeless. It is entirely reasonable to stop counting at a certain point, as Jencks mentions it is hard to prove there are no more needles left to count, but that always means there will be a measure of uncertainty with your counting and results. Your numbers will always come with a margin of error because there is almost no way to be certain that you didn’t miss something.
Where we chose to stop counting can influence whether we should consider our numbers to be scientific numbers or political numbers. I would argue that the decision for where to stop our count is both a scientific and a political decision itself. We can make political decisions to stop counting in a way that deliberately excludes hard to count populations. Alternatively, we can continue our search to expand the count and change the end results of our search. Choosing how scientifically accurate to be with our count is still a political decision at some level.
However, choosing to stop counting can also be a rational and economic decision. We may have limited funding and resources for our counting, and be forced to stop at a reasonable point that allows us to make scientifically appropriate estimates about the remaining uncounted population. Diminishing marginal returns to our counting efforts also means at a certain point we are putting in far more effort into counting relative to the benefit of counting one more item for any given survey. This demonstrates how our numbers can be based on  scientific or political motivations, or both. These are all important considerations for us whether we are the counter or studying the results of the counting. Where we chose to stop matters, and because we likely can’t prove we have found every needle in the haystack, and that no more needles exist. No matter what, we will have to face the reality that the numbers we get are not perfect, no matter how scientific we try to make them.
Political and Scientific Numbers

Political and Scientific Numbers

I am currently reading a book about the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and the author has recently been comparing the development of textile mills, steam engines, and chemical production in Britain in the 1800’s to the same developments on the European continent. It is clear that within Britain the developments of new technologies and the adoption of larger factories to produce more material was much quicker than on the continent, but exactly how much quicker is hard to determine. One of the biggest challenges is finding reliable and accurate information to compare the number of textile factories, the horse power of steam engines, or how many chemical products were exported in a given decade. In the 1850s getting good data and preserving that data for historians to sift through and analyze a couple of hundred years later was not an easy task. Many of the numbers that the author has referenced are generalized estimates and ranges, not well defined statistical figures. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean the data are not useful and cannot help us understand general trends of the industrial revolution in Britain and the European continent.
Our ability to obtain and store numbers, information, and data is much better today than in the 1800s, but that doesn’t mean that all of our numbers are now perfect and that we have everything figured out. Sometimes our data comes from pretty reliable sources, like the GPS map data on Strava that gives us an idea of where lots of people like to exercise and where very few people exercise. Other data is pulled from surveys which can be unreliable or influenced by word choice and response order. Some data comes from observational studies that might be flawed in one way or another. Other data may just be incomplete, from small sample sizes, or simply messy and hard to understand. Getting good information out of such data is almost impossible. As the saying goes, garbage in – garbage out.
Consequently we end up with political numbers and scientific numbers. Christopher Jencks wrote about the role that both have played in how we understand and think about homelessness in his book The Homeless. He writes, “one needs to distinguish between scientific and political numbers. This distinction has nothing to do with accuracy. Scientific numbers are often wrong, and political numbers are often right. But scientific numbers are accompanied by enough documentation so you can tell who counted what, whereas political numbers are not.”
It is interesting to think about the accuracy (or perhaps inaccuracy) of the numbers we use to understand our world. Jencks explains that censuses of homeless individuals need to be conducted early in the morning or late at night to capture the full number of people sleeping in parks or leaving from/returning to overnight shelters. He also notes the difficulty of contacting people to confirm their homeless status and the challenges of simply surveying people by asking if they have a home. People use different definitions of having a home, being homeless, or having a fixed address and those differences can influence the count of how many homeless people live within a city or state. The numbers are backed by a scientific process, but they may be inaccurate and not representative of reality. By contrast, political numbers could be based on a random advocate’s average count of meals provided at a homeless shelter or by other estimates. These estimates may end up being just as accurate, or more so, than the scientific numbers used, but how the numbers are used and understood can be very different.
Advocacy groups, politicians, and concerned citizens can use non-scientific numbers to advance their cause or their point of view. They can rely on general estimates to demonstrate that something is or is not a problem. But they can’t necessarily drive actual action by governments, charities, or private organizations with only political numbers. Decisions look bad when made based on rough guesses and estimates. They look much better when they are backed by scientific numbers, even if those numbers are flawed. When it is time to actually vote, when policies have to be written and enacted, and when a check needs to be signed, having some sort of scientific backing to a number is crucial for self-defense and for (at least an attempt at) rational thinking.
Today we are a long way off from the pen and paper (quill and scroll?) days of the 1800s. We have the ability to collect far more data than we could have ever imagined, but the numbers we end up with are not always that much better than rough estimates and guesses. We may use the data in a way that shows that we trust the science and numbers, but the information may ultimately be useless. These are some of the frustrations that so many people have today with the ways we talk about politics and policy. Political numbers may suggest we live in one reality, but scientific numbers may suggest another reality. Figuring out which is correct and which we should trust is almost impossible, and the end result is confusion and frustration. We probably solve this with time, but it will be a hard problem that will hang around and worsen as misinformation spreads online.
Why We Talk About Human Nature

Why We Talk About Human Nature

I entered a Master’s in Public Administration program at the University of Nevada in 2016. I started the same semester as the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. I was drawn toward public policy because I love science, because I have always wanted to better understand how people come to hold political beliefs, and because I thought that bringing my rational science-based mind to public policy would open doors and avenues for me that were desperately needed in the world of public administration and policy. What I learned, and what we have all learned since President Trump took office, is that politics is not about policy, public administration is not about the high minded ideals we say it is about, and rationality is not and cannot be at the heart of public policy. Instead, politics is about identity, public administration is about systems and structures that benefit those we decide to be deserving and punishing those who are deviant. Public policy isn’t rational, its about self-interest and individual and group preferences. And this connects to the title of this post. We talk about human nature, because how we can define, understand, and perceive human nature can help us rationalize why our self-interest is valuable in public policy, why one group should be favored over another, and why one system that rewards some people is preferable over another system that rewards other people.

 

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, he writes, “policy is ultimately about people, what they want and what is best for them. Every policy question involves assumptions about human nature, in particular about the choices that people may make and the consequences of their choices for themselves and society.” The reason why we talk about human nature is because it serves as the foundation upon which all of our social systems and structures are built upon. All of our decisions are based in fundamental assumptions about what we want, what are inherently inclined to do, and how we will behave as individuals and as part of a collective. However, this discussion is complicated because what we consider to be human nature, is subject to bias, to misunderstandings, and motivated reasoning. Politics and public policy are not rational because we all live with narrow understandings of what we want human nature to mean.

 

Personally, I think our conceptions and ideas of human nature are generally too narrow and limiting. I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, and he makes a substantial effort to show the diversity and seeming randomness in the stories that humans have created over tens of thousands of years, and how humans have lived in incredibly different circumstances, with different beliefs, different cultures, and different lifestyles throughout time. It is a picture of human nature which doesn’t quite make the jump to arguing that there is no human nature, but argues that human nature is a far more broad topic than what we typically focus on. I think Harari is correct, but someone who wants questions to religion to be central to human nature, someone who wants capitalistic competition to be central to human nature, or someone who wants altruism to be a deep facet of human nature might disagree with Harari.

 

Ultimately, we argue over human nature because how we define human nature can influence who is a winner and who is a loser in our society. It can shape who we see as deserving and who we see as deviant. The way we frame human nature can structure the political systems we adopt, the leaders we favor, and the economic systems that will run most of our lives. The discussions about human nature appear to be scientific, but they are often biased and flawed, and in the end what we really care about is our personal self-interest, and in seeing our group advance, even at the expense of others. Politics is not rational, we have all learned in nearly four years of a Donald Trump Presidency, because we have different views of what the people want and what is best for them, and flawed understandings of human nature influence those views and the downstream political decisions that we make.
Status Quo in Healthcare

Status Quo in Healthcare

How can we really make change to the United States healthcare system? Dave Chase, in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call argues that changes to the system need to come from private businesses, because private businesses are responsible for the health insurance coverage for over 50% of American’s. If business don’t take action and demand changes, Chase argues, then the system will not have enough strength to push against the status quo of rising costs and stagnant productivity within healthcare.

 

A quote from Chase about changing the American healthcare system reveals something larger about public opinion and the status quo in American public policy in general. Chase writes, “This book focuses on non-legislative strategies since the politics of health care are fraught with pitfalls. As we know, the best way to perpetuate the status quo is to politicize a topic – and nothing is easier to politicize than health care.”

 

I think Chase is correct about politicization and the status quo in the United States. Our country has deeply internalized ideas of liberal and conservative and wedded those ideas to the Democratic and Republican parties. This means that if an idea is taken up by a party, if it is politicized and adopted by a party, then it instantly becomes an identity marker, and people who might not have had a strong reason to care about an issue, suddenly find it to be a maker of who they are and what groups they belong to. Politicizing an issue in this system virtually guarantees gridlock, preventing any legislative action on the issue.

 

Private businesses, however, can make changes without relying on a 50% majority vote (or 2/3rds majority vote in congress). Throughout the book Chase presents economic and moral arguments for businesses to take the nation’s opioid crisis seriously, and uses it as a wake-up call to show businesses how our healthcare system is failing individuals, and ultimately failing the companies that hire those individuals and provide for much of the healthcare that individuals receive (or fail to receive). Public action is hard, so in many arenas, private action is the best chance for making the changes we want to see in the world.

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.

Implementation Matters

One party in the United States seems to continually chide any public sector misstep and only seems to be able to complain about the problems and waste of public sector projects and programs when discussing what the government actually does. While there are undoubtedly challenges and problems in public administration, continually complaining about and criticizing any public agency operation can have further costs to society. Good implementation in public policy matters, and one fear that seems reasonable to me, is that the constant denigration of public service will drive out creative and hard-working individuals, and worsen the very situations being criticized.

 

In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about the importance of implementation, and how they view it differently in their system of New Localism. They write,

 

“At a Brookings Institution forum in 2000, [Richard] Shatten stated that, ‘being right is irrelevant to the growth of cities and metropolitan areas. Good ideas are critical, but they have impact only when they are implemented thoughtfully and effectively. And sound implementation only happens when a community develops a civic, corporate, and political culture that can translate good ideas into action and execute with discipline and imagination.'”

 

Two things really stand out from this quote to me. The first is that good implementation is everything. Public agencies need to think about and study what will make the implementation of a program successful and need to be thoughtful of how they do the things they have been tasked with doing. Poor implementation of the perfect solution can ruin public support for that solution and can create even worse problems and greater barriers to achieving the outcomes society wants to see.

 

Second, good implementation relies on a strong political culture that accepts government action and helps align non-governmental actors to make implementation successful. It is not enough for private sector organizations and thought leaders to say that a policy needs to be put in place or run a certain way, they actually need to use their resources, skills, and expertise to be part of implementation. Good ideas require community efforts to become successful policy, and if a group simply stands apart, refuses to help, and cries foul at every opportunity, then implementation will of course fail, as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy of ineptitude. There is room for criticism of government and the failures of implementation should be discussed, but we should not hinder the implementation of a program out of a prejudice against public action. Ultimately, the public action on its own, as the quote suggests, is not enough. We can’t just criticize from the sidelines, we actually need to find ways for more organizations and groups to be involved in the implementation of new programs, specifically tailored to meet the local needs of populations, businesses, and environments. Standing apart and criticizing only snowballs problems. Collaboration and cooperation among civic, private, and public organizations is the only way governance and development will be possible in the future.

Problem Solving Locally

“As politics has become nationalized, problem solving has become localized,” write Jeremy Nowak and Bruce Katz in The New Localism. National politics is all about identity. It is all about the question of whether people like me are favored and socially rewarded on a nationwide scale. People like me might be men, intellectuals, Ford truck drivers, snowboarders, retail workers, stockbrokers, veterans, or evangelicals (note: I am not all of these things). We constantly have debates and shift our discussion of what identities are valuable and best reflect the America we desire to be, and at a national level, there is no real answer to these questions. Political decisions and policies become tied up in these identity questions, and it is hard to avoid having an opinion or becoming consumed with the values questions that these identity debates spark.

 

Meanwhile, daily life continues and human societies rely on systems and structures to guide our interactions and facilitate a peaceful flourishing for all individuals (ideally but maybe not what we always see). We rely on government to avoid tragedies of our commons, to ensure the products we use and depend on for our ways of life are safe, and to protect our individual and group rights from being infringed by others.

 

Problems will always exist in the organization and interaction of human beings, and when our national government is subsumed by questions of identity and debates that can never be fully settled, solving the daily challenges of human existence moves downward toward the locality where life is actually lived. Our states, our metropolitan areas, and especially our individual communities are the places where we can make changes and improve our situation.

 

These localities are innovating and connecting with new groups in unique ways. The interactions between private businesses, charitable foundations, and public agencies are being reinvented based on local situations and opportunities to drive forward new solutions to wicked problems. Challenges that cannot be introduced on a national level, where issues of identity fracture alliances and coordinated effort, are evaded at the local level where we all have a stake and a greater voice in addressing the challenges we face. Communities can produce a groundswell of support for innovative approaches to challenges new and old, and can dynamically adapt by creating new connections and structures between the stakeholders and organizations with the power to enact change. This is one way which governance can adapt in the future, and one way that we can overcome division to continue to make the world a more cohesive and better place.

A Thought on Populism & Localism

Populism has been in the news since 2016, but like any political “ism” it doesn’t have a super clear definition and meaning.  Most people, in my estimation, probably understand populism as some type of anti-elitist politics, where policies for “the people” are the focus as opposed to policies introduced by “the elites” or by “bureaucrats.” The essence of populism is an anti-top down approach to policy solutions, pushing back against an elite that tells the masses how they should live. Populism seems to be a form of governance where the people on the bottom demand their views both hold prominence and dictate the direction of public policy.

 

Governance by populism can be dangerous, however. It can have the feel of a mob mentality and while it can represent substantial and important concerns among the public, it can also be a driver of poorly constructed reactionary politics. It can give power and energy to groups that want policies that infringe upon the rights of others.

 

In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write the following about the populism we see in the United States and in the United Kingdom today:

 

“Populism has re-energized a politics-most prominently represented by Donald Trump in America and the Brexit coalition in the United Kingdom-that is nostalgic in focus, nationalistic in tone, and nativist in orientation. The rhetoric of this populist politics seeks to create walls, literal and figurative, that inhibit the flow of people, goods, capital, and ideas across borders; the essence of the modern economy.”

 

I don’t want to simply say that populism is wrong and criticize those who support populist policies. Instead I want to focus on understanding what is taking place in the brand of populism we see today, and how this cuts against the new grain of local governance and economic development we see in dynamic thriving cities in the United States (and across the globe) today.

 

Our populism represents a feeling of isolation and marginalization by those who do not benefit from a globalized world economy. Those who stand to lose status and lose economic means of participation feel as though they are simply being told that there is a new system in the world that doesn’t have a purpose for them. With declining social institutions and social capital in the Untied States (fewer people attending church, more people leaving rural areas, and lengthy commutes draining the life out of people) citizens see limited avenues to engage in the world in a way that feels meaningful. When work dries up or shifts from a craft to a retail job, people understandably feel threatened and vulnerable. Their intuition to pull back, isolate and protect themselves, and draw boundaries between who is and is not allowed to continue to engage in their desired economy is understandable even if it is harmful in the long run. I don’t think it is a healthy reaction, but we can understand where some of these populist pressures originate.

 

A new localism, in terms of governance and economic development, has to think about these pressures and reactions as it encourages a greater networking of innovative ideas, of fluid participation from varying individuals, and shifting rewards for creative and unique work. Somehow this complex system has to be made more understandable to more people, and also has to retain elements that improve the lives of people in more ways than simply making the cost of t-shirts and flashlights a bit cheaper. Localism won’t succeed and will be consumed by populist reactions if it cannot find a way to be inclusive and provide real value and a sense of meaning to “the people.”

 

The advantage that Localism has over traditional calcified forms of governance and over populism is its ability to cut through identity politics and focus on solutions to problems that people feel in their day to day lives. Localism aligns the efforts of the elites and the masses, encouraging development that makes cities and metro regions better places to live and work in, and helps encourage more social engagements, activities, and connections. Bringing people together and unifying interests and strengths is the only way to counter a populism which seeks to do the opposite.

Signaling Loyalty

Politics is an interesting world. We all have strong opinions about how the world should operate, but in general, most of us don’t have much deep knowledge about any particular issue. We might understand the arguments about charter schools, about abortions, or about taxes, but very few of us have really studied any of these areas in considerable depth. Anyone with a career in a specific industry understands that there is a public perception of the industry and the deeper and more complex inner workings of the actual industry. But when we think about political decisions regarding any given industry and topic, we suddenly adopt easy surface level answers that barely skim the surface of these deep and complex inner dynamics.

 

If we all have strong opinions about politics without having strong knowledge about any of it, then we must ask ourselves if politics is really about policy at all? Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggest that politics is generally about something other than policy. In The Elephant in the Brain they write, “Our hypothesis is that the political behavior of ordinary, individual citizens is often better explained as an attempt to signal loyalty to our side (whatever side that happens to be in a particular situation), rather than as a good-faith attempt to improve outcomes.” 

 

If the main driver of politics was doing good in the world and reaching good outcomes for society, then we would likely be a much more hands-off, technocratic society. Instead, we have elected a president who doesn’t seem to have a deep understanding of any major issues, but who does know how to stoke outrage and draw lines in the sand to differentiate each side. We generally look around and figure out which team we belong to based on our identity and self-interest, and separate into our camps with our distinct talking points. We don’t understand issues beyond these talking points, but we understand how they make our side look more virtuous.

 

I believe that people who are deeply religious are drawn toward the Republican Party which currently denies climate change partly because a society that has less emphasis on science is likely to be more favorable toward religious beliefs. The veracity of climate change and the complex science behind it is less important than simply being on a side that praises people for religious beliefs. Similarly, I believe that people with higher education degrees are more likely to align with the Democrat Party because, at the moment, it is a party that encourages scientific and technical thought. It is a party that socially rewards the appearance of critical thinking and praises people who have gone to school. Without needing to actually know anything specific, people with degrees who appear to think in a scientific method framework are elevated in the party where people with religious beliefs are disregarded. Both parties are operating in ways that signal who is valuable and who belongs on a particular side. Issues map onto these signals, but the issues and policies are not the main factors in choosing a side.

Factionalized

“Whenever and issue becomes factionalized,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “framed as Us against Them, we should expect to find ourselves behaving more like an apparatchik competing to show loyalty to our team.”

 

The human mind is exceptionally good at creating in-group and out-group perspectives. There are Ford Drivers versus Chevy Drivers. Raiders fans versus non-Raiders fans. Runners versus cross-fitters. Country folk versus urbanites. For whatever reason, we have a tendency to look for division across many areas of our lives, even when those areas are completely meaningless and inconsequential. Naturally, we assign good qualities to the groups that we belong to, and we start to assign all kinds of negative qualities and traits to the out-groups to which we don’t belong.

 

There is no meaningful difference between Ford and Chevy trucks, but talk to a guy who just bought a new truck and they will explain all about the positive qualities of their truck and people like them who buy their particular brand of truck. There is no way they could ever buy the other brand of truck and it is not a long jump for them to describe people who do buy other brands to be described as dumb, lazy, or lacking taste.

 

In politics we see this behavior the most clearly. When a president or party leader raises a particular item on the agenda and states that something is very important to them, the party loyalists (the apparatchiks) will instantly congeal to their opinion. The opposing party, meanwhile, will align themselves staunchly against the other party and their opinions. Any middle ground will get gobbled up by our in-grouping and out-grouping. This trickles down to the public and we don’t think deeply about issues, but simply recognize which line we are supposed to adopt to be on the correct team.

 

In the world of politics this can have disastrous consequences. In our personal lives, the stakes are not as high, but the consequences can still be ugly and should be pushed against. There is no reason to be pressured into feeling that you can or cannot eat something simply because people who are not like you also enjoy (or dislike) eating that thing. There is no reason our vehicle purchasing decision needs to be influenced by these meaningless groups that we create. We can take these pressures off our shoulders and try to be more connected with all people, not just with a small group that has something in common with ourselves. If we do better at recognizing these biases and pushing against them, then maybe we can build up to having more constructive relationships and build more cooperation into high stakes environments like politics.