↳ Policy_making

August 26th, 2019

↳ Policy_making

Summer in Brabant


On the pressures of policy-relevant climate science

Without any “evidence of fraud, malfeasance or deliberate deception or manipulation,” or any promotion of inaccurate views, how can bias enter a scientific assessment? In their new book, Discerning Experts, Michael Oppenheimer, Naomi Oreskes, Dale Jamieson, et al explore the pattern of underestimation of the true consequences of climate change.

Climate change's impacts are uncertain; predictions about climate change are difficult to make. Taking an ethnographic approach, Discerning Experts shows how those difficulties, coupled with the nature of the public discourse, and the pressures that come when research is going to be discussed and used in policy, have tilted climate assessment optimistic and cautious.

In a summary of their book, Oreskes et al explain three reasons for the tilt:

“The combination of … three factors—the push for univocality, the belief that conservatism is socially and politically protective, and the reluctance to make estimates at all when the available data are contradictory—can lead to ‘least common denominator' results—minimalist conclusions that are weak or incomplete.”

These tendencies, according to the authors, pertain to the applied research context. The academic context is different: “The reward structure of academic life leans toward criticism and dissent; the demands of assessment push toward agreement.” Link to a summary essay in Scientific American. Link to the book.

  • In an interview, Michael Oppenheimer elaborates on other elements that skew the assessments: the selection of authors, the presentation of the resulting information, and others. Link.
  • In a review of the book, Gary Yohe reflects on his own experience working on major climate assessments, such the IPCC’s. Link.
  • A David Roberts post from 2018 finds another case of overly cautious climate science: models of the economic effects of climate change may be much more moderate than models of the physical effects. To remedy this, “We need models that negatively weigh uncertainty, properly account for tipping points, incorporate more robust and current technology cost data, better differentiate sectors outside electricity, rigorously price energy efficiency, and include the social and health benefits of decarbonization.” Link.
  • Tangentially related: carbon tax or green investment? It’s worth considering not just all possible policy options but also their optimal interactions. A paper by Julie Rozenberg, Adrien Vogt-Schilb, and Stephane Hallegatte concludes, “Optimal carbon price minimizes the discounted social cost of the transition to clean capital, but imposes immediate private costs that disproportionately affect the current owners of polluting capital, in particular in the form of stranded assets.” Link to a summary which contains a link to the unpaywalled paper.
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July 29th, 2019



Inherited institutions and the early American welfare state

Many recent policy proposals are variations on European programs implemented throughout the twentieth century. Despite their marked diversity, European welfare states share a foundation of social protections largely responsible for their lower rates of inequality. Theories on the development of this safety net, whether employee- or employer-driven, hold little explanatory power in the American context; they can't tell us why the US failed to expand the early pension system of the Civil War, or why protections for female workers and mothers preceded the sort of male oriented, class based policies which were common in Europe.

In her 1992 classic book, Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol offers a compelling account of the development of modern social provisions in the United States. Conceptually, her narrative balances path dependency with historical contingency, stressing the "fit" between politicized group formations and the design of government institutions.

A brief summary of her conclusions, from the introduction:

"In certain European countries, state bureaucratization preceded the emergence of parliamentary parties, or the democratization of the male electorate. When political parties emerged in such circumstances, they had to make programmatic appeals to collectively organized constituents, including organized workers. Circumstances were sharply different in the 19th century United States, where no pre-modern centralized bureaucracy held sway, and where full democratization of the electorate for white males was virtually completed nationwide by the 1840s.

Because they were already voting, American workers did not need to mobilize along class lines to overcome exclusion from suffrage. But patterns of exclusion from electoral politics shaped the possibilities of women's political consciousness. National and local groups claiming to speak for the collective interests of women were able to mount ideologically inspired efforts on behalf of maternalist welfare policies, outside of parties or regular electoral politics."

Link to the publisher page.

  • In their more recent, widely cited paper, Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote trace the weakness of America's welfare system to race, concluding: "Racial animosity in the US made redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters." Link.
  • More on Civil War pensions: A focused analysis from Skocpol in 1993, and a detailed legislative history submitted as a PhD dissertation by John William Oliver in 1917. Link and link.
  • "By the turn of the 20th century, more than 350,000 women were gainfully employed in New York City, making it the largest urban concentration of female workers in the country. The Women's Trade Union League of New York served as an important training ground for working women and upper-class social reformers alike." Nancy Schrom Dye on the WTULNY and the cross-class alliances it forged. Link.
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July 1st, 2019



Results from Brazil

How can evidence inform the decisions of policymakers? What value do policymakers ascribe to academic research? In January, we highlighted Yale's Evidence in Practice project, which emphasizes the divergence between policymakers' needs and researchers' goals. Other work describes the complexity of getting evidence into policy. A new study by JONAS HJORT, DIANA MOREIRA, GAUTAM RAO, and JUAN FRANCISCO SANTINI surprises because of the simplicity of its results—policymakers in Brazilian cities and towns are willing to pay for evidence, and willing to implement (a low-cost, letter-mailing) evidence-based policy. The lack of uptake may stem more from a lack of information than a lack of interest: "Our findings make clear that it is not the case, for example, that counterfactual policies' effectiveness is widely known 'on the ground,' nor that political leaders are uninterested in, unconvinced by, or unable to act on new research information."

From the abstract:

"In one experiment, we find that mayors and other municipal officials are willing to pay to learn the results of impact evaluations, and update their beliefs when informed of the findings. They value larger-sample studies more, while not distinguishing on average between studies conducted in rich and poor countries. In a second experiment, we find that informing mayors about research on a simple and effective policy (reminder letters for taxpayers) increases the probability that their municipality implements the policy by 10 percentage points. In sum, we provide direct evidence that providing research information to political leaders can lead to policy change. Information frictions may thus help explain failures to adopt effective policies."

Link to the paper.

  • New work from Larry Orr et al addresses the question of how to take evidence from one place (or several places) and make it useful to another. "[We provide] the first empirical evidence of the ability to use multisite evaluations to predict impacts in individual localities—i.e., the ability of 'evidence‐based policy' to improve local policy." Link.
  • Cited within the Hjort et al paper is research from Eva Vivalt and Aidan Coville on how policymakers update their prior beliefs when presented with new evidence. "We find evidence of 'variance neglect,' a bias similar to extension neglect in which confidence intervals are ignored. We also find evidence of asymmetric updating on good news relative to one’s prior beliefs. Together, these results mean that policymakers might be biased towards those interventions with a greater dispersion of results." Link.
  • From David Evans at CGDev: "'The fact that giving people information does not, by itself, change how they act is one of the most firmly established in social science.' So stated a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. That’s not true. Here are ten examples where simply providing information changed behavior." Link. ht The Weekly faiV.
  • For another iteration of the question of translating evidence into policy, see our February letter on randomized controlled trials. Link.
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