The hermeneutics of wonkery

I spend much of my professional life reading through policy papers from various think tanks and have reached one overriding conclusion: more than anything else, it’s how things are measured and represented that ultimately determines how we think about them.

Across the political spectrum, papers that analyze issues like poverty and climate change in exquisite detail contain virtually all of their substance in their initial premises – not in their subsequent analyses.

For example, if you’re studying poverty it matters more what you understand “poverty” to be in the first place than it does what the empirical details are. How do you measure and represent it? Against what ultimate standards do you set your data against? How you answer these questions will define the contours of your conclusions more than anything else.

Yet in today’s world, most mainstream policy thinking obscures this – understanding itself to be essentially technical in character. This is the TED Talk Syndrome at work: the idea that virtually every social ailment can be understood like a puzzle, all the necessary pieces already being available and simply in need of rearranging. Governments, corporations, and think tanks alike tend to approach problems in this way, with the assumption that change can be created within the parameters already in existence.

The trouble with this formulation is pretty straightforward: most actual problems aren’t the result of badly configured material so much as the lack of a substantively alternative framework or the absence of necessary material to begin with. You can’t defeat climate change unless you fundamentally shift the way resources are consumed and extracted. You can’t simply engineer poverty away, but you can make sure people have more money by redistributing wealth.

And this is the real rub, because you have to agree that those are the objectives in the first place and carefully define what you mean by them.

The lesson here? For all the contemporary fetishization of “evidence-based policymaking” no level of empirical wizardry or technocratic brilliance can escape the fact that how we make policy ultimately depends on our basic assumptions about how people behave and how they should live with one another.

There are no technical solutions to political problems.



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