On Not Surrendering to Bad Ideas

Ezra Klein’s list of common mistakes made by economists when engaging with politics makes a lot of good points. But where I disagree with Ezra it’s in what I see as an excessive level of concern with short-term practicality. Since one of his injunctions is to listen more to political scientists and another is to avoid the word “stochastic,” I’ll buttress the point with the observation that political science indicates that the operation of American politics is a good deal more stochastic than political practitioners (including journalists) generally realize. The conventional wisdom tends to simultaneously underrate the odds of the status quo persisting and underrate the odds of dramatic, rapid change.

Relatedly, I think there’s often a tendency to systematically underrate the extent to which it’s possible to change minds over time. That’s one reason I was so interested in Anthony Appiah’s book on moral revolutions. Public opinion about civil rights legislation changed a lot between 1915 and 1965 and a lot more between 1965 and 2005. Attitudes toward war have evolved considerably since Vietnam, and attitudes toward gays and lesbians have been completely revolutionized over the past 20 years.

None of that is to deny that there’s a place in the world for concessions to political reality and for practical-minded people. But I think that as a society we’re actually under-invested in discussions of impractical schemes and public efforts to remediate widespread intellectual errors. The course of the future is very uncertain. Three years ago, I would have agreed with the consensus that a cap-and-trade bill with side-deals was much more likely than a carbon tax. Today that now looks wrong to me and carbon tax as part of a long-term deficit reduction bill seems like the most likely (albeit not very likely) path to meaningful carbon pricing. In retrospect, we can see that George Allen’s “macaca moment” led to a massive overhaul of American health care policy. Under the circumstances, the best thing for people knowledgeable about policy-relevant subject matter to do is to share what they know with as many people as possible and worry less about pre-trimming ideas to conform to guesstimates about what’s possible/relevant/effective.

Most of all, people should think more about the long-term. Ask yourself what it was “feasible” to do to public opinion or public policy in 1811. And yet somehow things are better. And I’m optimistic we’ll improve in the next 200 years.