Policy analysis in a post-truth world..

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.

5 Responses to “Policy analysis in a post-truth world..”

  1. vikramml Says:

    Its just the usual liberal professor whining. There is a lot of it as 90% of college professors are liberal-oriented. It isn’t important and it certainly isn’t timely. Truth has always been discarded by either party. Its just that the Dems don’t like it when the shoe is on the other foot. It is a post-truth world because the MSM hasn’t been telling the truth for a long time now. Every statistic is presented with a political spin. It would have been timely, if he or the liberals spoke out against Obama and NSA or Obama and IRS scandal, etc. When the MSM was pro-Obama. Just imagine if the Snowden scandal would have happened under Trump. We would have all the professors going berserk that Trump was the new Hitler. What did they do against Obama? Nothing!! Well, I guess they will know now what happens when the shoe is on the other foot. Its not timely, they are late, much too late.

  2. nluthra1 Says:

    To respond to the comment above, I think there is a clear departure that Donald Trump has taken from the previous administrations, be it Bush or Obama. When the future leader of the free world comes out and openly says that he will be skipping intelligence briefings, it is vastly different from other politicians who may be presented with facts and try to spin them in a different way. There is a key difference between diverse (and sometimes perverse) interpretations of facts and a simple refusal to confront them at all by simply denying their existence. I agree that statistics can be biased and are rarely presented with no “spin” whatsoever, but that is still different from denying they exist in the first place.

  3. vikramml Says:

    Wonder why my previous comment (in response to the other comment) is still in the moderation queue?

    • Amol Agrawal Says:

      Hi Vikram. Well I don’t know how the wordpress automatically put one of your comment on the moderation queue. I didn’t even realise till you sent me the message. I have approved it as there was nothing you said which required moderation. Thanks for letting me know. Regards

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