All public policy rests on a foundation – its narrative framework. This narrative framework is comprised of facts, assumptions and arguments that allegedly support the policy. It is absolutely imperative to question these narratives, as they are often demonstrably inaccurate. False narratives give rise to dangerous policy.
Examples abound. The dominant economic philosophy in the U.S. over the past three decades has been supply-side. This maintains that high-income earners should be awarded lower tax rates in order to incent them to invest in businesses, and that the benefits of this investment will “trickle down” to the lower classes via job creation and economic growth. Most economists (e.g., Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz) now consider this to be discredited theory. But the consequences of its adoption have been extreme -- the explosion of income inequalities in the United States. The minimum wage is another field wrought with false narratives. It is commonly argued that an increase in the minimum wage will cause a significant increase in unemployment. Recent economic studies suggest a far more complicated set of impacts -- a higher minimum wage can lower employee turnover, increase worker productivity, and provide workers with more money to spend in the economy -- all with a negligible impact on unemployment (see the recent research by Berkeley’s Michael Reich on the minimum wage, for example).
False policy narratives are also prevalent in non-economic realms. Educational narratives that emphasize failing schools and school choice are concerning, because they apply a business metaphor to a social institution. When an individual buys a product (e.g. a car), it is appropriate to refer to the plants that produced the car as either successes or failures, based on the quality and cost of the cars they produce. Education is entirely different. The student has a profound influence on the quality of what he/she is procuring – his/her education. This is unlike the car shopper who has no influence whatsoever on the quality of what he/she is procuring. In short, in the realm of commerce, the consumer buys a product that is external to him or herself; in the realm of education, the consumer is the product. And this distinction changes everything. By referring to “failing schools,” focus is placed on poor school management and teaching (which certainly sometimes exists), and diverted away from the underlying problem of low-income communities that gives rise to poor educational outcomes in the first place. Scores of studies document the relationship between community economics and educational outcomes. Thus, our society embeds achievement gaps into its educational system via income inequalities, and then refers to the resulting underperforming schools as “failing schools.” It is ironic (or something worse) that educational policy is focusing on school choice at the very time that its income inequalities are at an all-time high (and getting worse).
The field of immigration is also rife with false narratives. It is often asserted that immigration causes the unemployment rate of the host country to increase, and also leads to the deterioration of public finances because immigrants consume more public services than they pay for in taxes. In fact, most modern scholarship supports the opposite conclusions. Given the lower average age and unemployment rates of many immigrant communities in the U.S., these communities tend to help, not hurt, public finances, and often to a sizeable degree. Indeed, for these (and other) reasons, Japan is now considering adopting a much more liberal immigration policy to deal with its aging demographic profile.
False narratives operate in the realm of political philosophy as well. For example, it is common for individuals to criticize the “regulatory state.” Elizabeth Warren (amongst others) reveals the absurdity of these arguments by making the obvious observations that very few individuals would really prefer to purchase their food without the presence of the FDA, or fly without the existence of the FAA. In my view, the increasingly prevalent practice of providing corporations with tax breaks is another area that is characterized by inaccurate narratives (please see my May 26 blog for a discussion of this issue).
Several important themes emerge from this discussion. First, to change public policy, it is often necessary to first challenge and then reconstruct the narratives that undergird the given policy. Second, narratives are, of course, tied to and driven by economic interests. Thus, narratives serve an economic agenda. Combining these first two themes yields a third theme – that changing false narratives can be perilous, as doing so entails challenging the interest groups that have a stake in perpetuating the flawed narrative.
These observations suggests that an effective public official must have the insight to understand areas where poor policy is propped-up by false narratives, the ability to provide the thought leadership necessary to challenge and reformulate these narratives, the dedication to work with constituents to reconsider society’s narratives, and the political courage to be willing to take on interest groups to change policy that is based on these false narratives. Some might argue that focusing on false policy narratives is an academic exercise. My view is the opposite: there is nothing more pragmatic than identifying and challenging the false narratives that determine our public policy – it is a prerequisite for meaningful, substantive change. For a further description of my approach to developing policy, and for a summary of my policy priorities, please see the "Campaign Objectives" section of my website.
- John Stafford