Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Empiricists Strike Back

Modern Democrats often assert that they are the party of empiricism. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic debated Jonah Goldberg of the National Review recently over this exact point on the TNR website. The basic argument was as follows: Chait asserted that if an impartial judge came down from the heavens and declared that Democratic economic policies made us worse off, then Democrats would immediately change their policies. (He used welfare reform as an example.) Republicans, however, believe in low taxes and private accounts for social security as ends in themselves (since they equal more “freedom”), and it would not matter much to them if these policies were shown to be inefficient or bad for long-term economic growth. Bottom line: Democrats are the reality-based party and Republicans are the ideology-based party.

In my view, the recent bankruptcy bill passed by the Republican Congress (and some notable Democrats), the administration’s overwhelming focus on unproven abstinence-only programs in Africa, the debate over the estate tax, and general GOP ambivalence about the realities of global warming are all strong indicators that Republicans do not care much for what the data says. On the other hand, it is difficult to tease out the difference between disingenuous spin and actual disregard for the underlying data. For example, on the bankruptcy bill, Republicans (and some Democrats) pointed out that many habitual gamblers, shop-aholics, and celebrities run up massive credit card debts and then escape payment through generous homestead exemptions. In reality, most of the bankruptcies declared this year in the U.S. were a result of unforeseen events, like a health care crisis or a divorce. This data is widely available, and presumably, lawmakers are aware of it. Perhaps Republicans do not care what the data says (as the campaign contributions from credit card companies are more convincing than any empirical work could ever be), but it is more likely that Republicans believe that the new law will actually change people’s behavior. Now obviously, this change in behavior would only impact the small percentage of bankruptcies caused by irresponsibility, rather than the much larger percentage caused by random misfortune. Still, I lost most voters three sentences ago when I mentioned the word “data”.

Therein lies the problem for empirical social scientists like myself and J.S. who want to influence the policy debate. First, most people are not patient enough to listen to the data. More importantly, it is easy to create another set of results that make the opposite predictions with a methodology that is flawed, but in a way that is not immediately obvious. For evidence of this, look at any Congressional hearing where “experts” are called on both sides of the issue.

When the data contradicts what we know must be true, Republicans and Democrats can both be stubborn. Take John Tierney’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. In explaining the dramatic drop in crime in New York City during the 1990s, economist Steven Levitt argues that a large factor was the legalization of abortion in New York in 1970. Conservatives would rather attribute it to Mayor Giuliani’s crackdown, while liberals would prefer to explain it by adding more cops and providing more economic opportunities. Levitt’s provocative thesis poses an interesting problem. Neither side wants to admit that Levitt could be right, and there is no clear (and humane) policy implication from his work. Only Levitt and other empirical social scientists will have any interest in pursuing extensions on this work, and given the limited influence of intellectuals in American public life, they do not have much of a chance.

So is there hope that we can one day convince Democrats that class size has much less impact on educational outcomes than they wish to believe, or persuade Republicans that charter schools do not truly work all that well? Probably not. Both parties have interests in advocating policies they know to be wrong because their constituencies will continue to lobby and fund them. Going directly to the voters with the data is also difficult for the reasons explained above.

So what’s an idealistic policy wonk to do?

My best advice is to sit and wait. For a long time. The empirical truths will eventually become the conventional wisdom after ideological frames have been broken down (another post) and a series of crises expose the fallacious reasoning they relied upon. Please do not interpret this argument as cynical; the fact that substantive changes take decades to come to fruition is probably a better thing than most of us realize.

R.C.

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