Thursday, October 30, 2008

In Defense of Wonks!

David Brooks wrote a column in the October 28th NY Times entitled The Behavioral Revolution that got under my skin. I never do this, but I couldn’t help myself. I wrote him an e-mail. Here it is:


You had me hot as a pistol at the beginning of your October 28th column (Human Frailty). Your assessment of public policy analysis was particularly ill-informed. Have you ever read Eugene Bardach? It may not have been part of your History curriculum at Chicago, but I have read you long enough to know that you are fairly well read. I suggest his "A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis" (first class, first semester of any good Master of Public Policy program). In it he outlines the "the Eightfold Path." The first step on that path is to "define the problem." The failure you point out with the current fiscal breakdown was not a failure of policy analysis. I'd be surprised if there were very many public policy analysts involved in the effort to deregulate the financial sector. I think that tar baby belongs to our friends from the business school.

Despite your conservative leanings, I find myself agreeing with you more than my liberal conscience is fully comfortable with. I agree that the failure was in large part due to, as Nassim Taleb asserts, "the existence of inherent limitations and flaws in the way we think and act." But this problem was not totally unforeseen. Many economists, financial and policy analysts have spoken for some time of the overly complex nature of our financial system.

Do you concede that it is possible that the system was designed by many people "engaged in calculating their self-interest" and that the lack of regulation and oversight started a snowball rolling downhill that eventually morphed beyond the control and/or understanding of financial services "industry".

I am a pretty liberal guy, but even I don't think oppressive regulation is the answer (Jamie Galbraith, eat your heart out). But how about the government create some guidelines for financial analysts to operate within that seek to simplify the process and create transparency and then get out of the way and let them run wild like the pack of savages that they are. The trade off, of course there is always a trade off, would be that violating these parameters would be a criminal act punishable by some form of disbarment (similar to the legal world) for malpractice.


As a post-script I will add that the role of behavioral psychology is indeed lacking in public policy analysis. But that is a failure of implementation not the system for analysis of public policy. Unfortunately policy is usually analyzed in the context of partisanship. That assumes that a bias is guiding the analysis as opposed to the analysis guiding the ideology. I agree that the fallout from the financial collapse will be an emphasis on behavioral economics and that is a good thing.

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