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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  • And that has made all the difference, though one may quibble whether “policy” represents the total sphere of public human endeavor.

    Another quibble: I’m not sure whether “for or against more racial equality” is the correct label for that particular “rope.” It has been in the past, but I get the impression now that everyone is *for* more racial equality, and the debate now centers around whether certain policies are counterproductive to that end.

  • eric

    don’t be coy, what are the two dimensions identified by Poole and Rosenthal? Not obvious given the link.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    And with any luck, your sidways tugging may remix the situation entirely, so that the predictable patterns change. Hopefully in that change, there will be opportunities for genuine improvement as well…

  • Eric, the main dimension in the US now is liberal/conservative, but the dimensions are different in different nations and times.

    Stuart, why aren’t sideways changes “genuine” improvements?

  • Good points Robin. Certainly pulling the ropes sideways gives you an enormous amount of leverage to tweak government policies in more welfare-maximizing directions than joining the hosts of combatants pulling the ropes from each end. Nice analogy.

    But overall, I see policy in general as less relevant to government behavior than is generally believed. Much of policy debate is showmanship instead of substantive disagreement. Think of it as the Superbowl, Survivor and American Idol for the chattering classes. . .

    The most important unwritten but inevitable “policy” of government is to expand its financial and regulatory reach to the extent possible. So from that perspective, the policy tug-of-war between battling tribes in congress is an interesting spectator sport, but fairly irrelevant. The strange “morphing” of low-tax, low spend, low regulation Republicans into a party of drunken binge-spenders once they got into power shows pretty clearly that the public-choice interpretation of government behavior is a lot closer to the truth than one which looks at these things in terms of competing “policies”. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. . .

    An increase in the amount of activity which cannot be taxed, such as blogging, markets for recognition and prestige, open-source projects like wikipedia and Linux and open-source science are all steps in the right direction. . . When people spend more and more of their lives and energy on Myspace and Second Life and and OB and listening to free MP3s in itunes and video clips on YouTube instead of reading about government policy in the newspaper and watching the evening news on one of the “big 3”, when they homeschool or send their kids to private school, all these things erode the relevance and scope and influence of government in ways that government is poorly equipped to counteract. I think engaging in those activities will ultimately be the most effective ways of reducing the relevance, mindshare and eventually the size and scope of government. And to me, increasing the number of decisions that are made freely versus the number which are made politically is a very good thing. . .

  • Douglas Knight

    From the first few paragraphs, I expected the conclusion to be that one should pull sideways after choosing a side, any side.

  • Pull the Rope Sideways.

    I have a new general principle to follow!

  • eddie

    This is the road less traveled that I have chosen.

    How’s that workin’ out for ya?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Stuart, why aren’t sideways changes “genuine” improvements?

    My phrasing wasn’t clear: I definitely see sideways changes as genuine improvements (and I find this idea very motivating, thanks for the post).

    I was just hoping that as a result of those sideways changes, when the big coalitions rearrange themselves for yet another linear tug of war after their old one grows stale, they might choose more sensible positions to pull from. An added bonus for the sideways tugers.

  • Alan Gunn

    I have long thought that people (other than actual politicians) whose work deals with policy matters, like academics and judges, ought not to belong to political parties. This is partly because party membership seems to put pressure on people to follow their party’s current line, which in turn directs their efforts toward cobbling up defenses for that line instead of dealing with the merits. I know people who were avid free-traders when Al Gore was debating Ross Perot, but who now claim to fear low-wage Chinese workers. Now I have another reason for thinking academics ought to be independents: they’d probably be more likely to “pull ropes sideways?”

  • Jeremy McKibben

    The response to the proposed height tax is a really good example of people getting confused when they can’t determine which side someone is pulling for. However, Mankiw’s paper seemed to fall squarely within the two dimensional regressive-progressive taxes debate (although he wouldn’t say so directly in the paper).

  • Jason GL

    The problem with Rosenthal and Poole’s analysis is that they do not attempt to define what it *means* to be on one side of a liberal/conservative axis. You can certainly code votes on various bills as “left” or “right” on an imaginary x-axis, but I am not aware of any work that has been done showing that a politician’s position on this axis can accurately predict their future votes, let alone that the axis has any substantive ideological content.

    Thus, the fact that congressional votes tend to clump in vague patterns that roughly match up with fuzzy ideas about what it means to be a liberal/conservative does not really “explain” variation in Congressional behavior any more than calling all people with odd habits “psychotic” and all people with ordinary habits “sane” explains variation in human behavior–no causal mechanism has been identified, and our expectations about the future have not been meaningfully constrained.

    I believe there are other studies that have confined themselves to variables that are easier to rigorously define, such as “attitude toward taxes,” and have shown less clumping.

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