End of a (personally) important year

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.

Mark Shriver, not a  a bad looking guy.

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.



5 thoughts on “End of a (personally) important year

  1. All of this is super nice to read. I studied econ and worked in water, though only on the edge of the policy stuff with the City of LA. Your summary of what economics is rings true – yeeesss to the fact that much of the science of it is in a vacuum, also yes to the fact that vacuums are sometimes useful when put to their purpose. I can also fully understand what you’re saying about the challenges of politically driven decision-making, and you say it so well. Also, yeeessss to you working in the direction you’re going, because you sound like someone with a broad perspective and an eye for complex solutions to real world problems. To top it off, I recently had a conversation about the sciences with a geneticist working on her Phd. Her observation is that biology, chemistry, and other sciences are also always working in a vacuum – if you take out all the variables, you can have a certain result. Her perspective is that we need to be looking at what it means for their results to be true. Not in a scientific way but in a broader picture way that is outside the vacuum. My kind of geneticist. We talked about how the next era of science (and I’d argue for economics, too) will be the era of working our way outside the vacuum until the thought of experimenting in a vacuum seems as foolish as making policy decisions based on economic value, as determined by the amount of money that can be made by the companies funding the study.

  2. Ramona, glad it resonated! To a large degree there is a lot more confidence in the natural sciences to lead the way. The social sciences are so concerned about keeping up the appearance of of being scientific (as opposed to humanistic) that they’re incredibly conservative. The keynote for the Humboldt Foundation this year gave a talk about on how art and chemistry have similarly gone from representing nature to playing with their own artificial representations and spoke about the chemistry as an art unto itself and the applications of completely unnatural chemical objects (combinatorial chemistry). He also made an plea that jargon be abandoned in academic journals.

    So yeah, I think we’re on the cusp of a new era of science. But we’ve got to reform a lot of institutions first. Phd students trained to be their professors, quantity over quality in publications for tenure. more open science, more citizen science, “impact” conceived more broadly. Exciting times.

    Speaking of CA, I will be out there later this month and am meeting with people who are interested in new directions in science and policy, I think participatory modeling and serious games have great potential for helping with the water problems out there. You have any suggestions as to people and organizations I should get it touch with?

  3. Chris, Very interesting. Using games in this way is a new idea for me.
    Regarding the role of economics in policy making. A few observations. 1) Economics has to a surprising degree colonized many of the social sciences, so that it is viewed as “the right way to do policy analysis.” This has caused problems in both academia and policy.
    2) You are absolutely right about the need for experimentation. Product development provides for this, with the sequence: theory- paper models- prototypes- beta tests – market tests – gradual roll-out – refinement and ongoing enhancement.
    The political process doesn’t make it easy – an observation going back at least to the 1960s. States sometimes serve as a parallel research environment (e.g. Romneycare in Massachusetts.) It’s great to see that both nonprofit and government projects are now including ongoing “evaluation” components, which fills some of the need for long-term learning.

    • Thanks for reading Roger. Yes, economics has proven itself to be an imperial discipline, and according to my impression, particularly in the U.S. and at UCSD. But I don’t come to bury economics, but rather to praise it. Economists are really good at communicating with each other because they’ve settled on representing the bulk of their theory in differential equations. The problem of course being, certain assumptions are required to make the math work.

      Natural language of course offers us a lot more nuance and flexibility, but suffers sadly from inherent ambiguity and variance in use. Elinor Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development Framework offers a nice partial fix but sadly takes a lot of up front investment and at the end of the day can lend insights and rigor, but has depended on statistical modeling for empirical validation, which means we have problems explicitly representing and testing many interesting but unobservable social processes.

      I’m betting on computer simulation, particularly agent based modeling, to cover the problems with processes which are not directly observable and provide the rival to economics. I cover these issues generally and the “meta-model” based on Ostrom’s work which got me interesting in agent based modeling in a previous blog post. But honestly I think the serious rival is the NetLogo programming language. It, along with the scientific methodology for implementing it can be learned in less than a month (one can create a first program in a morning). It’s also visual, pretty fun, free, and cross-disciplinary (was developed by ecologists). It also links will with general movement towards more open and citizen science. Marco Janssen at ASU seems to be doing to innovative work here.

      At the end of the day though, I think the economists will be secure in the “heights” of academia and politics for some time to come. The key is going to be working on cross-disciplinary problems at the local level and getting real impact.

  4. Chris, this was an excellent post. It’s great to hear how well things are going for you in your current pursuits. If/when you get to the place where you are thinking about moving back, drop me a line. There is a small consulting shop I know of that I think could be a really great fit.


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