When policy is magical thinking


Long-lived debates in the policy and management with which I am familiar have been fought at the extremes: Market versus Hierarchy; Hierarchy versus Coordination; Coordination versus Regulation; Regulation versus Innovation; Innovation versus Politics; Politics versus, well, every other abstraction from Science and Technology.

We are still told that, when it comes to high reliability of society’s critical infrastructures, macro-design should trump micro-behavior (i.e., operator error); alternatively, micro-behavior must drive macro-design (i.e., self-organizing, complexly adaptive systems). If only we designed efficient energy markets, the grid would take care of itself; if only we had real-time metering in every household and business, the grid would take care of itself; if only we distributed multi-agent software to self-heal the grid, the grid would take care of itself.

If only we had full cost pricing, or political will, or had publics that could handle Arrow’s voting paradox, then everything would be okay. It’s alright to leap from macro to micro and back again, and that’s a promise! If only we took short-cuts to reliability and got rid of all that mess in between, we’d be better off.

Which way Africa: Kenyatta or Nyerere? Which way Latin America: Structural Adjustment or Basic Human Needs? Which way the world: Globalization or [fill in today’s blank]? We might as well talk about who is more likely to be in a Christian heaven, Plato with his soul or Socrates for his self-sacrifice.


Policy as practiced has much to do with the conjuror’s misdirection. A policy directs your attention to one area while the real action happens elsewhere. You focus on the policymaker when the other hands of middle-level managers and professionals ensure rabbits and hats go together. Sadly, to focus on the spectacle and not the handiwork is the real “policy blunder.”

As a newly-minted policy analyst, I was told we had first to nail down the politics. Without correct political arrangements, how can we have worthwhile policies? I remember vividly times when I was assured that change political institutions and human behavior changes accordingly.

Further along we were told, actually, it’s all about economics. Here I remember being assured “After all, you can’t repeal the business cycle!” and with the correct macroeconomic and microeconomic arrangements in place, politics change for the better.

We policy analysts were told later that, actually, it’s about getting the science down. Dummy, it’s politics and economics that have gotten us into this mess and will keep us there, unless we start taking science seriously!

And yet. . .the very same misdirection continues throughout.

Farms continue to get their subsidies—be it because agriculture is politically important, food is economically important, carbon sequestration is important, global politics is reallyReally more important without which there will be no earth, no climate, no food, no agriculture, no subsidies worth speaking of. We could as well believe philosopher Kant’s early musings about how the collapse of the universe—yes, the entire universe—can be brought about by even the slightest disarrangement here.


–Many of the people I work with believe that, when it comes to saving the earth, the real problems reduce to politics, dollars and jerks. The reductionists also believe that the only way this is going to change—“reallyReally change”—is via a disaster that wakes up everyone to the magnitude of the crisis. It takes a disaster to get people to prevent disaster.

–The magic here becomes obvious when you press: “What kind of disaster are you talking about?” It turns out they want the Goldilocks scenario—not too weak an earthquake or no one will do anything, not too strong a disruption or nothing can be done, but an earthquake (storm, fire, epidemic, whatever) just big enough to shake everyone up—but not to kill too many of them!—so that the “they-them” do the right thing, be it through better science, politics, economics, government, society, culture, people, ethics…


Would you believe that installing the wheel closer to the engine gets you to your destination sooner? And yet…

How many times have we heard or been ensorcelled by something like, “If implemented as planned…,” “If done right…,” “Once the risks are controlled. . .,” or “Given market-clearing prices…” Sure thing, just like that older version: “Monarchy is the best form of government, provided of course the monarch possesses virtue and wisdom.” Each phrase expects us to do a dry-run on a spell.

‘‘If implemented as planned,’’ when we know that is the assumption we cannot make. ‘‘If done right,’’ when we know that “technically right” is unethical without specifying just what the ethics are, case by case. “Once the risks are controlled,” when any notion of control is ludicrous when in radical uncertainty. ‘‘Given market-clearing prices,’’ when we know not only that markets in the real world often do not clear (supply and demand do not equate at a single price)—and even when they do, their ‘‘efficiencies’’ can undermine the very markets that produce those prices.

Admit it: All these “when-done-well” end up little more than the magical thinking of a primitive people. We could as well believe that the surest way to heat the house in winter is by striking a match under the porch thermometer.

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