Policy Tug-O-War

Imagine the space of all policies, where one point in that space is the current status quo policy.  To a first approximation, policy insight consists on learning which directions from that point are "up" as opposed to "down."  This space is huge – with thousands or millions of dimensions.  And while some dimensions may be more important than others, because those changes are easier to implement or have a larger slope, there are a great many important dimensions. 

In practice, however, most policy debate focuses on a few dimensions, such as the abortion rate, the overall tax rate, more versus less regulation, for or against more racial equality, or a pro versus anti US stance.  In fact, political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal are famous for showing that one can explain 85% of the variation in US Congressional votes by a single underlying dimension, where there are two separated clumps.  Most of the remaining variation is explained by one more dimension.  Similar results have since been found for many other nations and eras. 

These results reflect more the nature of human coalition formation than the nature of policy.  From personal examination of many policy topics I can say with confidence that a great many policy dimensions do in fact have a large impact on overall human welfare, and that the best directions on most dimensions are not easily predicted by a few overall policy dimensions. 

But no matter what you position you try to argue for on what dimension, most readers will try to project your position onto the few "key" policy dimensions, asking whether your position is pro abortion, more taxes, more regulation, and so on.  This is true for academics as well as for politicians and the public.  And if readers can’t easily read you as being for their side, they will suspect that you are really on the other side.

The policy world can thought of as consisting of a few Tug-O-War "ropes" set up in this high dimensional policy space.  If you want to find a comfortable place in this world, where the people around you are reassured that you are "one of them," you need to continually and clearly telegraph your loyalty by treating each policy issue as another opportunity to find more supporting arguments for your side of the key dimensions.  That is, pick a rope and pull on it.   

If, however, you actually want to improve policy, if you have a secure enough position to say what you like, and if you can find a relevant audience, then prefer to pull policy ropes sideways.  Few will bother to resist such pulls, and since few will have considered such moves, you have a much better chance of identifying a move that improves policy.  On the few main dimensions, not only will you find it very hard to move the rope much, but you should have little confidence that you actually have superior information about which way the rope should be pulled.

For example, on taxes, realize that you should have little confidence that you really know better than others whether taxes should be higher or lower.  Instead of looking at the overall tax rate, or at what fraction is paid by the rich, look at how we might change the composition of taxes, holding constant the overall rate and the fraction the rich pay.   How can we tax leisure as well as labor?  Should we tax height or beauty?  Should this year’s taxes depend on last year’s income?   

Most will hear such proposals and immediately try to translate them into being pro or anti more taxes.  And if they cannot easily translate, they will suspect you of disloyalty to their side.  But if you can resist such pressures, you have a far better chance of identifying better ways to pull policy ropes sideways, though you will find it harder to gain support or attention for your proposal.  This is the road less traveled that I have chosen. 

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