Archive for January 6th, 2017

Policy analysis in a post-truth world..

January 6, 2017

This is an important and timely piece by Prof Charles Manski of Northwestern University.

Looking ahead, I am deeply concerned about the future practice of policy analysis in the Trump administration.  So much has already been written about the tenuous relationship between the president-elect and reality that I shall not attempt to document the phenomenon afresh.  Instead, I will cite the clear and frightening writing of Ruth Marcus, who recently opened her periodic column in the Washington Post as follows (Marcus 2016):

“Welcome to – brace yourself for – the post truth presidency. ‘Facts are stubborn things’, said John Adams in 1770, defending British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre, ‘and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.’  Or so we thought, until we elected to the presidency a man consistently heedless of truth and impervious to fact checking.”

Marcus went on to comment that Trump had an incentive not to respect truth. She wrote:

“The practice of post truth – untrue assertion piled on untrue assertion – helped get Donald Trump to the White House. The more untruths he told, the more supporters rewarded him for, as they saw it, telling it like it is.”

I have two worries about how the new administration will regard policy analysis.  One is that it will severely cut back funding for the regular data collection that makes possible the publication of official economic statistics.  The other is that the analysts who staff federal agencies, who have had a strong reputation for political neutrality and integrity, will be pressured to cook findings to suit whatever the president believes. Coherent policy discussion, which has already become difficult in an increasingly partisan governing environment, may become impossible when the White House considers even basic facts to be malleable.

A constructive way to mitigate the potential damage may be to establish research centres and statistical agencies outside the executive branch of the federal government that can provide honest and well-informed predictions of policy outcomes and estimates of the state of the economy.  Perhaps the Federal Reserve Board and Congress can provide part of what is necessary, but I expect that part will have to come from non-governmental entities.  The US presently does not have the requisite institutions.  A suitable exemplar may be the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the UK.

However we strive to provide honest and well-informed policy analysis, I continue to believe that our society would be better off we were to face up to uncertainty.  Many of our contentious policy debates stem in part from our failure to admit what we do not know.  We would do better to acknowledge that we have much to learn than to act as if we already know the truth or can infinitely manipulate it.

Applies to India as well. It is shocking to see how polarised and politicised our policymakers have become in recent years. We need a lot of independent and non-partisan research and writing. It is appalling to see the stands people have taken during the recent cash withdrawal exercise just based on their political leaning.


Chuck Norris vs. communism

January 6, 2017

A superb post in MR Blog (via Emily Skarbek).

It talks about a documentary which shows how smuggled Chuck Norris movies created impacts in minds of Romanians:

Chuck Norris Versus Communism is a great documentary about art, the power of heroes, and the end of communism in Romania. After the communist regime was established in 1948, travel was restricted, the media were censored and the secret police watched everyone. Romania was cut off from the rest of the world. In the mid-1980s, however, smuggled VHS tapes of American movies began to circulate. Underground groups would gather together to watch samizdat movies like Rocky and Lone Wolf McQuade.

For many of the young boys (now men) featured in the documentary the West’s action heroes became role models of endurance, independence and fortitude. I too remember running home filled with enthusiasm after seeing Rocky but in Romania the message was all the more powerful because there was so little else to compete with Hollywood’s images and watching was itself a kind of heroic snubbing of the regime.

The action was exciting but perhaps even more revealing were the ordinary scenes of supermarkets stocked with food, at a time when Romania was racked with severe rationing. City lights, beautiful cars, and the ordinary freedoms of worship and belief casually portrayed, all impressed on the Romanian viewers the starkness of their own situation.

Almost all of the movies were dubbed (technically voice over translated) into Romanian by one woman who took on all the roles. Few people knew her name but her voice became entwined with that of the heroes she translated and she became a national symbol of freedom. Irina Nistor is revealed as a real hero who despite great personal risk continued to translate hundreds of movies because that is when she felt most free.

There’s also a mystery that the documentary discusses but does not fully answer. How did the mastermind of the smuggling operation, Teodor Zamfir, get away with it? At least some of the authorities had some idea of what he was doing but perhaps due to bribery, perhaps because there were no longer any true believers, perhaps because the authorities thought the movies would provide an escape valve from the harshness of Romanian life, they allowed the operation to continue. Zamfir also appears to have had immense personal charisma, so much so that he somehow turned an undercover operative to his side. It’s a remarkable story.


We too in India saw some of these movies as kids and were equally awed..

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