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Mark PiperFebruary 07, 2023
A public policy solution to homelessness may sound good but actually make the problem worse. Who pays for that mistake? (iStock/Dejan Marjanovic)A public policy solution to homelessness may sound good but actually make the problem worse. Who pays for that mistake? (iStock/Dejan Marjanovic)

Before we voice a preference on public policy, whether in the voting booth or talking with family members over dinner, we should consider one question with two parts. First, what are the costs of choosing the wrong policy? And second, who would have to bear those potential costs?

While studying public policy in graduate school, I came across that question in Eugene Bardach and Eric M. Patashnik’s book A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis. What began as an academic exercise eventually morphed into a frequent opportunity for reflection.

Formulating serious proposals in public policy takes more effort than responding to a friend asking if, for example, she should quit her job. (“I dunno, but you seem unhappy. Go for it!”) Policy analysis often begins with the definition of a problem and ends with the choosing of a specific proposal, a choice based upon the projected outcomes from various alternatives. In each of the intervening steps, it is possible to make mistakes in the collection or interpretation of data. If the wrong solution is chosen, a problem will likely persist as before or even be made worse.

First, what are the costs of choosing the wrong policy? And second, who would have to bear those potential costs?

One seminal example Bardach uses is that “too many families are homeless.” Public policy solutions, which usually require the approval of elected officials, may include rent control, zoning law changes, vouchers, funding of homeless shelters and the construction of public housing. If I approve a ballot initiative related to one of these proposals or help elect a politician to enact one of these proposals, and the population of unhoused families does not decrease, I may not have helped solve the problem. In fact, I may have made it worse. For instance, the purported disadvantages of rent control include limiting the housing supply and taking away incentives for landlords to properly maintain their properties. In a worst-case scenario, fewer tenants than expected will have stable rents, and some will spend more on repairs that their landlords fail to make.

Another example of a public problem is widespread hunger or malnutrition, perhaps due to the unaffordability of groceries. Policy solutions may include the elimination or reduction of the sales tax on food items, the government increasing the supply of food (did you know that the federal government has a strategic reserve of cheese?) and reducing inflation through monetary policy. If I approve a ballot initiative or help elect a politician to enact one of these proposals, I need to consider the possibility that the proposal will fail or even increase hunger. For instance, if the Federal Reserve raises interest rates and restricts the country’s money supply, inflation may decrease and groceries may become more affordable, but job creation may suffer. If prices go down but you become unemployed, you probably would not think this was an optimal policy solution.

Jeff Immelt, the former chief executive of General Electric, once advised, “every job looks easy when you’re not the one doing it.” Similarly, in matters of public policy—and I would apply this even to homilies that discuss public policy—every mistake seems harmless and easily fixed when you’re not the one in the arena or the one suffering from the harm of the sub-optimal policy.

Every mistake seems harmless and easily fixed when you’re not the one suffering from its harm.

For any problem, nuance and discernment are integral to decision making. That is, the solution should not just sound good. Assemble the evidence, look at the trade-offs of various alternatives, ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong?” For instance, in the area of criminal justice, “tough-on-crime” policies may reduce certain offenses, but they may also lead to overcrowded prisons, racial profiling, disinvestment in certain neighborhoods and other outcomes that harm the very populations the policies are meant to protect. But how many of us directly bear the cost of such outcomes?

This process of policy analysis and asking, “What if I am wrong?” was literally an academic exercise while I was in graduate school, but it is also a simple reminder of our interconnectedness as neighbors, of our legitimate preferences or needs in the context of the common good, and the opportunity to make real the preferential option for the poor in our daily lives.

If we choose to be engaged citizens and educated voters, we must regularly assess, and if needed, correct our policy choices. We can do this most thoughtfully if we resist knee-jerk reactions, sound bites from politicians and “hot takes” on social media. We need not be experts in public policy, but for the common good and good public policy, we must be practitioners of calm, serious reflection. Only afterward should we act.

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