The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question.
2013 was fun. I quit my job, road tripped across America, sailed, skied and surfed in California, spent my summer learning German, and sipping Kölsch on the Rhine, and moved to Berlin. But 2014 was a far more important year for my personal, professional, and intellectual development. It was the year that I finally got my head fully around issues of science, politics, and philosophy that I’ve been contending with since I first got into democratic politics 12 years ago.
In the past 12 years I’ve found myself torn between two worlds of practicioners, who generally have two very different ways of looking at and interacting with the world, the political and the scientific. Your academic training in political science isn’t much help for working in the business of politics, this is something I learned quickly after arriving on Capitol Hill. You’ll find people far more generous and helpful at getting you started than you would expect from reading Machiavelli or rational choice theory, and yet the idealist will be quickly disappointed as well, no one has the time to reflect on how to apply Rawlsian principles of justice.
No, the effective political operative doesn’t need to, and probably shouldn’t, practice good scientific method in his or her daily life. The trade is much more in instincts, illustrative anecdotes, good listening and communication skills, and a healthy work ethic and sense for loyalty and entrepreneurship.
I remember an early indicator that I wasn’t quite cut out to be a political operative. While volunteering in the Democratic primary in Maryland (campaign experience being vital to anyone hoping to getting a job anywhere in U.S. politics) a number of other volunteers kept speaking about how good looking our candidate was. Of course he was, he’s a Kennedy, but why were we spending so much time discussing his looks and not his policies? Well because our job was to get him to win. And if you help enough people win, then you get to make policy. That’s how democratic politics works. So once you’re on board, you’ve got talk about what keeps you psyched up to win. If that’s your guy’s pretty face, so be it.
This reality certainly doesn’t fit with a certain ideal of how politics should work, objective experts taking a cold look at the facts and coming up with rational policies. But I will defend the reality to the extent that it has a lot to do with talking to voters and hearing their concerns, and communicating how your candidate’s policies can address those concerns. In democratic politics listening matters, and it should. Experts are not always good listeners.
Anyway, the other guy got the Washington Post endorsement (his wonky policy chops playing well with editorial boards) so my guy lost. I got a staff job in the U.S. House of Representatives, working for a freshman moderate Democrat from California. I wrote responses to consitutents concerned with his stances on policy issues, managed his computer system, and was his “expert” for 13 legislative issues ranging from education to the environment, and libraries to space exploration. Suffice it to say, my expertise wasn’t all that deep. But I was getting a good feeling for how Capitol Hill worked in practice.
And I would like to reemphasize here that it is IMPORTANT to know how campaign and legislative politics work if you have any interest in public policy whatsoever. If I had a dollar for every time someone at my graduate school said, “I’m into policy, not politics“… This distinction is purely a linguistic one, because we happen to have two words for these things in the English language. This distinction is not so clear in Spanish or German. But you get what people are saying, “I do the scientific, objective, and clean part, and leave the sausage making to others.” Well, policy always includes some sausage making, and if there is going to be some sausage in the finished dish, it doesn’t hurt to know a bit about the ingredients and the production process.
But I wasn’t cut out to be a sausage maker all my life. Basically you have two career paths open to you from Capitol Hill, go run for office yourself or work your way up and become a lobbyist. I didn’t have a good reason to run, and wasn’t that interested in the money so, after a short interlude of surfing, learning Spanish, and traveling the world, I headed off to study the one subject that seemed to transfix even the most weasely of Washington, D.C. politicians: Economics.
To cut a long story short, I learned that economics has no special access to “Truth,” and economists consist of another set of experts who may or may not be helpful in dealing with the political issue at hand. Economics requires a certain suspension of disbelief, acceptance of certain assumptions, if only for the sake of argument, in order for it to be seen as an integrated program with coherent policy recommendations. We know that people are not rational all the time, but sometimes it is useful to assume that they more or less are. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t a science, it certainly contains hard won facts, insights, and theory, produced by heated argument, analysis, and careful and methodical observation. But the tribe that best understands the scientific body of this work is a very different one than the one familiar with the political trenches. And the economic tribe can’t be counted on to be very good listeners when it comes to the needs of voters, or have very good “instincts” when it comes to politically practicable ways to address the voters’ needs. The economic tribe has other concerns and interests.
So I settled into a certain pragmatic approach to economics. Economic efficiency is one policy consideration among many, and I could tell you something about what in particular was meant by “economic efficiency,” and how we could get closer to it. In the final years of the George W. Bush Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) was feeling an increased need to show that it had considered the economic impacts of its actions. So they brought me onboard.
I wish I could tell you that my pragmatic take on economics was the end of the story. The first analysis I worked on, a cost-benefit analysis for a permit to deal with aquatic invasive species from the ballast water of ocean going vessels, went out without a hitch. It was probably assisted in this endeavor by the fact that if it hadn’t gone out all vessels in U.S. waters would have been in violation of the Clean Water Act due to a court decision.
The second action I was supposed to work on, a cost benefit analysis on dealing with overflows from sanitary sewer systems (into streets, basements, and waterways due to poor maintenance among other things) died a political death before I even got started.
And so I ended up on the flagship action of the U.S. EPA’s Office of Water under the Obama Administration, the “Stormwater Rule.” Let’s just say my pragmatism and communication skills were no match for the process and the conflicts that developed between the economists representing competing bureaucratic units inside U.S. EPA and the White House. The cost benefit analysis created major problems for the Stormwater Rule, and ultimately sunk the whole thing. And sadly the problems did not stem from any inherent economic inefficiencies in the proposed regulation, but rather from the process of how the economics was conducted, how the economics was understood by non-economists and fit with bureaucratic priorities, and the politics surrounding the process.
The problems stemming from the cost benefit analysis were apparent to many of the other economists at the Office of Water and the upper management at U.S. EPA as well. A cross-office committee was formed and I started looking for the drivers of the problem and potential solutions.
The problems weren’t just technical, they were also political, and problems with how we framed scientific questions and how the research was conducted and understood in a democratic society. I did my best to bring previous work and talk about and experiment with possible new directions, including working with the City of Falls Church and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay on a serious game on pollution from stormwater. But the fundamental change that was needed was going to require additional experimentation and risk. And risk taking is not rewarded in the current hyper partisan political climate of Washington, D.C.
So I took some time to experiment myself, and work through some new ideas, and have been able to spend 2014 doing this thanks to generous support from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and with excellent colleagues and a stimulating environment at the Ecologic Institute in Berlin. I’ve spent the bulk of my time thinking about how we can “say” something interesting, useful, and scientifically valid in policy settings. My work this year has focused on water utility management and financial sustainability, but lends itself to general application in all manner of complex policy situations which require interdisciplinary science and understanding and agreement among diverse stakeholder groups.
And my experimentation and relfection have paid off. I won’t go into the finer theoretical and conceptual issues I worked though here, but will just say that as far as I am concerned they have moved from theoretical and conceptual issues to issues of implementation. Generally speaking, we need increased and better use of serious games and “participatory modeling,” that is collaborative multi-stakeholder modeling practices which can take advantage of flexibility of computer aided representation.
In terms of implementation, others are already doing excellent work. The EU is already funding such practices through major research projects such as Engineering the Policy-Making Lifecycle and Open Collaboration for Policy Modelling. In the water sector, Dr. Pahl-Wostl has been doing groundbreaking work at the University of Osnabrück and the Stockholm Resilience Center. Particuarly exciting for me, an old game geek, is the Companion Modelling Approach which integrates both gaming and computer simulation under a common umbrella.
2014 was a year of reflection. In 2015 it’s time to get to work. But I can’t imagine more exciting or more imporant work to be engaged in.