The Limits of Policy

The Limits of Policy

I went to grad school to study public policy because I wanted to learn how to combat our most pressing public problems. Instead, policy school taught me how to perpetuate the unjust, capitalist status quo.


I remember standing behind the deli counter at the grocery store where I worked, packaging containers of olives, utterly demoralized. It was the day after the 2016 presidential election, and there was a palpable sense of disbelief, rage, and sadness stewing around throughout that store. I remember several times locking eyes with coworkers and wordlessly exchanging mutual condolences. That day I vowed to channel my anger and sorrow toward less selfish pursuits – to do much more to combat injustice and solve our most pressing public problems.

With these vague and starry-eyed aspirations in mind, I applied to grad school to study public policy, where I hoped to translate my idealism into concrete actions. I wanted to learn how to design, implement, and evaluate effective policy measures to improve the quality of people’s lives – many more lives than I could feasibly impact through one-on-one encounters. According to my own naive theory of change – one that, I would later realize, neglected the role of political power in accomplishing anything of significance – good policy was all that mattered. This isn’t surprising; after all, I was a product of the early 2000s, when “wonky” stopped meaning lopsided and instead emerged as a badge of honor amongst very serious intellectuals who debated online about the intricate details of arcane rules and regulations. 

Climate change and the looming ecological crisis played starring roles in my recurring dystopian nightmares, so environmental policy seemed like the best path to pursue. Excited and hopeful, I went off to policy school at a big liberal public university, anticipating that I would get down into “the weeds” and devise some transformative policies to decarbonize our economy, mitigate the threat of environmental catastrophe, and elevate the lives of our country’s inhabitants.

But I quickly became disillusioned. First and foremost, our classes tended to operate under the outmoded assumptions of neoclassical and neoliberal economics which emphasize efficiency maximization, glorify market-based solutions, and fetishize GDP growth. We learned that the market usually allocates goods efficiently, and that government action is only justified to patch up clear market failures. Looking at climate change through this lens, the problem is simple – a market failure has occurred in an otherwise perfectly functioning energy market. Carbon pollution is a negative externality, and fossil fuel companies do not pay the true social cost of fossil fuel production. Luckily this can easily be corrected by slapping on a carbon tax to reflect the true cost of fossil fuel production (thereby “internalizing the externality”) and then letting the market work everything else out. Voila, market failure solved! Capitalism isn’t a rotten system of exploitation and oppression, there was just a little wrinkle that needed to be ironed out, and now everything is just fine. According to this view, government’s role must be restricted because public provision is generally inefficient and because government failures are inevitable and worse than market failures. 

This framing completely ignores the reality, value, and promise of publicly-provided goods and services, abortively casting government aside as intrinsically defective in favor of a mythical optimal market at equilibrium that only exists in Econ 101 textbooks. A whole chapter in our policy analysis textbook was even devoted to “government failures” and the inherent flaws of regulation, government bureaucracy, and democracy. Why is public provision assumed to be inferior in the absence of a market failure? Aren’t all markets in a constant state of market failure? I can’t name a single industry that isn’t failing to allocate resources sustainably and equitably. Even the chocolate business – which prior to a quick google search I imagined to be joyous, whimsical, and delicious – is a notorious oligopoly that’s destroying West African rainforests, enslaving children, and ruining Halloween (by undermining candy variety and inflating chocolate costs through collusive price-fixing). Why should private provision be the default? 

This glorification of the private sector confines government to a limited role on the sidelines as a mechanism to establish capitalist incentives, to referee competitive markets, or to provide, begrudgingly, “non-rivalrous non-excludable goods” (e.g., roads). Even worse, “public choice theory” (a twisted branch of economics that tries to apply market logic to politics) slinked into our curricula on multiple occasions, and we were taught that it’s often better to “run government like a business” – to transplant market mechanisms into the public sphere and embrace practices that undermine the public sector, like contracting out, devolution, and privatization. It’s thinking like this that’s given us a whole litany of monstrosities like private prisons and charter schools.

We were also taught to strive for “Pareto efficient equilibriums” – situations that maximize utility where no one else can be made better off without making someone else worse off. Our policy analysis professor insisted this was a common-sense goal that no reasonable person could disagree with. In practice, it ends up treating highly unjust and irrational situations as “efficient,” and thus desirable. If one child has one marshmallow and another has 10, any new marshmallow policy we propose should not involve reducing the marshmallow stash of the child with 10. Surely, our professor intoned, everyone would agree that policies shouldn’t reallocate resources to make someone worse off. This implies the child with excess marshmallows should get to keep all 10 (despite the fact that the serving size for large marshmallows is only four), and we would just need to find some other way to help the unfortunate child with only one marshmallow (I hear the faint cries of an economist yelling that we just need to grow the marshmallows).

But why should this be the optimal situation? When the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans have nearly twice as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, it seems like we should make those 1 percenters slightly worse off and redistribute that wealth to everyone else – basically, we should expropriate the expropriators. In policy classes, however, this kind of talk is sacrilegious (I can’t even imagine anyone seriously discussing class conflict, unions, socialism, Marx, revolution, etc., in any of my policy classes). Furthermore, why is the status quo taken as a given, when in reality it is the direct outcome of previous public policies and private decisions? That is to say, why should we accept the current distribution as the baseline for determining what to do next, when it is clearly unjust? 

Additionally, the obsession with efficiency may titillate economists but it doesn’t help improve social wellbeing. Efficiency for efficiency’s sake is premised on the notion of scarcity – but scarcity is no longer our problem. Our productive capacity has famously increased nearly eightfold over the last 100 years, so we can definitely afford to sacrifice some efficiency for far more important values. We should be asking: efficient at what? What direction do we want to steer our economy? What goods and services should we be collectively producing, and for whom? Most efficiently producing guns, fossil fuels, and complex financial instruments just means we’re most efficiently killing each other, polluting the earth, and allowing robber baron middlemen to extract wealth at the expense of everyone else. 

Our courses also stressed that effective policies must be “politically feasible” – a euphemism meaning moderate, incremental, and superficial. According to this warped understanding of feasibility, successful policy analysts must appeal to the forces currently in power in order to effect superficial change, to placate industry and allow powerful conservatives to set the agenda. We were taught to look at proximal factors rather than fundamental root causes – to tweak, tinker, and nudge rather than transform. That meant devising carbon trading schemes as opposed to nationalizing the energy sector, finding ways to slightly reduce the costs of prescription drugs rather than implementing Medicare For All (let alone socialized medicine!), and developing legal aid apps to help people navigate a cruel and complex criminal justice system as opposed to ending mass incarceration and eliminating the need for these legal apps in the first place. Capitalism was obviously taken for granted, seen as so inevitable I don’t think it was even mentioned during our economics courses. 

This prioritization of moderation, under the guise of pragmatism, delimits the range of potential policy alternatives that we consider, restricting them to opaque and uninspiring half-measures. When I went to a professor for help with a project and explained that I was having trouble identifying ways to address the root causes of a public health issue, he suggested I was setting my sights too high – I needed to focus on something smaller and easier to fix. “Feasibility” thus serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy, constraining what is possible and preserving the unjust dynamics of the status quo. It dampens creativity, perpetuates harms, and precludes meaningful change. More problematically, this combination of centrist posturing, Clintonian triangulation, and preemptive concession not only converts a negligible number of nonbelievers, but serves to deflate popular enthusiasm and hemorrhage support among would-be proponents of more radical and unapologetic policies. During a policy workshop class, we were discussing the intricacies of means-tested social programs and how to eliminate “benefit cliffs,” and I raised my hand and suggested that this would all be much simpler if we just provided universal programs like health care free at the point of service, without any means testing. And everyone in the room laughed! You know something’s wrong when an equitable, common sense policy used all around the world – one that exemplifies the motto “health care is a human right” – is seen as a joke.

Even worse, our classes positioned policymaking as a top-down, technocratic process where experts use complicated statistical tools and reams of “objective” quantitative data to conceal the ideological values underlying their assumptions. In this process, there is no room for popular participation or deliberative democracy – just analysts alone with their thoughts and “value-neutral” datasets. In my classes, I was often the sole voice advocating for democratic policies like sortition and participatory budgeting, and I remember a student being shot down for having the gall to suggest more direct democracy might be in order. 

Perhaps nothing is as deceptive as the way we were taught to gauge the strength of policy alternatives: the infamous cost-benefit analysis, which conceals its bias under the cloak of scientific rationality. Crucial assumptions and decisions underpin its calculations. For example, cost-benefit analyses have a systematic tendency to overvalue easily quantifiable variables and undervalue or ignore equally important abstract, qualitative ones – and this has profound implications. As political scientists Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz pointed out, “how can one be certain in any given situation that the ‘unmeasurable elements’ are inconsequential, are not of decisive importance?” Converting everything to dollar amounts (i.e., commodification) hardly solves the problem. How many dollars is biodiversity worth? A healthy forest? A human life? Is a human life really only worth the sum of lifetime earnings? Aren’t some things impossible to price? At school, I pored over numerous cost-benefit analyses related to climate change mitigation. The costs of addressing it through policy are much more easily quantified than the environmental costs of doing nothing, skewing the analysis in favor of the status quo (which, as Bachrach and Baratz explain, is a decision in itself). It is easy to calculate the potential profits of an iron mine, but impossible to quantify what the land means to the indigenous people who have inhabited it for millennia and rely on it for physical and spiritual sustenance. How do you calculate the marginal social cost of a few extra gigatons of carbon when the resulting rising sea levels subsume an entire island nation? In these ways, quantitative data serve to legitimize biased conclusions. Numbers are not neutral; there are always values lurking between the digits and decimals.

The battle over the appropriate discount rate when gauging the longterm consequences of climate change represents another example of the bias and inadequacy of cost-benefit analysis as a method to discern objectively good policies. Because people tend to value things in the present more than they do in the future (would you rather have $10 now or in 10 years?), economists insist we must “discount” the future – despite the ethical implications of valuing future lives less than our own – when comparing costs and benefits across large periods of time. So when conducting cost-benefit analyses, they use a “discount rate” to reduce the value of benefits in the future. Basically, the higher the discount rate, the less we value the future. 

This simple concept has major ramifications for climate change cost-benefit analyses because the benefits of addressing climate change may accrue decades and even centuries from now, while the costs are more upfront (although I would argue the immediate health co-benefits of mitigation – namely cleaner air – are immense, but we can save that debate for another time). To inform climate policy, economists William Nordhaus and Nicholas Stern both used cost-benefit analyses to calculate when and how we should approach mitigation – but came to wildly different conclusions. Nordhaus uses a higher discount factor (1 to 3% per year) in his calculations, derived from the typical rate of return on investments. Essentially, he argues that the benefits decades from now are worth much less than benefits today. Stern, on the other hand, uses a lower discount rate (0.1% per year, based on the risk of extinction) in his 600-page review – valuing the future only a bit less than the present. As a result of this simple discrepancy, Nordhaus concludes that, to maximize efficiency, we should delay climate change mitigation, while Stern concludes that “the benefits of strong and early action far outweigh the economic costs of not acting.” Why calculate the entire cost-benefit analysis when it just boils down to differing values? The unfortunate answer is because it can be used as a tool of legitimation, to marshal support for preferred policy positions that do not challenge underlying capitalist dynamics, and quantification is a way of making things that are clearly value-driven look like mere objective scientific fact. What do most economists think about this debate? Well, in 2018 Nordhaus won a Nobel Prize for Economics for his climate change work, so that gives us a pretty good idea.

While I took many progressive and justice-oriented classes at grad school that illuminated the structural inequalities of society and pointed toward how to dismantle them, my policy analysis classes blatantly did not. And my experience isn’t an outlier. All across this country, idealistic students who want to learn about public policy – future government employees, politicians, analysts, nonprofit workers – are imbibing the regurgitated nonsense of dead capitalist economists, as Keynes (sort of) said. They are learning how to perpetuate the status quo rather than dismantle it, how to become technocrats with superficial solutions as opposed to agents of justice and structural transformation. I know because so many other public policy schools are using the same exact policy analysis textbook as we did, which has been called the “bible” of public policy. In a way it is unsurprising; after all, the economists who are educating this next generation of public managers were all trained in the heyday of neoliberalism, public choice theory, and Reaganomics – in that orgy of free market fundamentalism, welfare state retrenchment, and public sector vilification that occurred in the last three decades of the twentieth century. But I think a more materialist analysis also explains why many classes are so neoliberal – all you have to do is follow the money (in one particularly egregious example, a huge banking corporation donated millions to dozens of universities to create “designated capitalism centers” and teach courses on the “morality of capitalism” using Ayn Rand books, among other dubious initiatives).

This is how dominant ideologies are reproduced, how hegemony is preserved. The beliefs, values, and norms taught in school shape the world-views of students and determine which policymaking strategies they will see as worthy and legitimate. Should we seek utilitarian efficiency, or transformative justice? Should we use technocratic cost-benefit analyses to determine what policies to implement, or sortition and deliberative democracy? Is government inherently weak and ineffective, or should we take government provision as the default and force markets to justify their existence each and every time? Is blind faith in growth really good, or is it a recipe for outstripping our natural resources and fueling our own self-destruction? 

We need a citizenry (and policymakers) that understand that what’s been masquerading as common sense was manufactured by wealthy corporations – and the complicit economists who rationalized their greed – for the pursuit of profit at the expense of society. A rising tide lifts all boats – but this doesn’t help the 90 percent of Americans who can’t afford to own a boat.

Of course, other institutions of socialization reproduce ideology – the family, media, workplace, church – but graduate-level education is perhaps the most explicit about its aims and the most effective in molding the minds of future policymakers. Today it unfortunately serves as a method by which the next generation of policymakers is indoctrinated with centrist garbage. Among these ivory towers and manicured quads, capitalism is reproduced – aided and abetted by defunct economists. And even if policy students themselves don’t buy into the central premises of centrist policymaking, they need jobs and money after they graduate, and they are thus forced to accept positions that reinforce capitalism.

In a roundabout way, policy school has radicalized me – but unintentionally, in opposition to its neoliberal, technocratic curriculum. I learned that instead of tinkering, nudging, and tweaking, we should be transforming. Instead of addressing proximal factors with incremental and superficial half-measures, we should be addressing fundamental root causes with substantial structural changes. Instead of adhering to the outmoded assumptions of neoliberal economics that proliferate business-friendly solutions, we should be fighting against the corporations and plutocrats who are exploiting workers to line their own pockets. Instead of adopting top-down and technocratic approaches to policy, we should embrace democracy and channel the power and intelligence of an engaged public. And we should never let the specter of political feasibility dictate our policy options and constrain our political imaginations.

Most importantly, I realized that pure policy design has limitations. Experts can craft the most amazing policies that might halt climate change or redistribute wealth or eliminate poverty, but they accomplish nothing without the political power to implement them. Power converts ideas into change; it puts policies into place. In regard to a lot of our sociopolitical problems, we know exactly what to do, yet we cannot seem to do it – because an unholy alliance of social and free market conservatives (along with their liberal enablers and apologists) wields power and stands in the way of progress. Good policy is not the limiting factor – power is. So we can perfect our policy toolkit and hone our complex policy alternatives all we want, but it means nothing unless these policies are backed by power. And right now, we – the left, the working class – lack power. So that leaves us with two options: we can snuggle up to the forces currently in power to effect superficial change that doesn’t challenge the deep systemic inequities of the status quo, or we can seize power by spurring an energized public into action using grassroots organizing to push for the policies that would truly improve lives and give everyone the opportunity to flourish. Easier said than done, right?

The realization that power is the ultimate prerequisite for policy implementation should force us to become more radical and populist and challenge our calcified economic and sociopolitical system. We don’t need more policy experts – we need huge popular mobilizations and strategic social movements to harness dissatisfaction with the present and convert it into real transformation. Better policy alone is not an antidote to the ills of society. Of course, my policy classes never taught me these things.

Thankfully, there are alternative ways to get educated. I’ve actually learned more about how to improve our economic and sociopolitical system by listening to RevLeft Radio or by attending DSA’s Socialist Night School than I ever did during my grad-level policy classes. Developing more extensive and robust institutions for political education – ones that are well-integrated within a broader Leftist media ecosystem and sufficiently insulated from capitalist pressures – should be a priority for those of us seeking to make change. We should take inspiration from the amazing web of socialist self-education clubs, colleges, workers schools, and even sunday schools that flourished at the turn of the last century.

Lenin’s proverbial question: What is to be done? What should socialist students of public policy do? First, we must realize that, while good policies are important, a dearth of effective policy alternatives is not our current problem. We have comprehensive, democratic, and intelligently devised plans, but we lack the power to implement them. Instead of moderating and weakening these policies – thereby undermining their original purpose and compromising our values – to appeal to those in power, we must find an alternative source of power to drive transformative political change, one that is not dependent upon concentrated wealth and influence. We thus must cultivate and orient an informed and energized working class that supports the original unadulterated policies in question. Instead of devising convoluted market-based mechanisms without challenging the sacred tenets of capitalism or addressing the deep structural inequities of the status quo – justified on the basis of feasibility and falsely non-ideological rationality – we must embrace and harness the democratic power that stems from an engaged and active public; essentially, we need massive grassroots activism to implement effective and socially-just policies. We don’t need more graduate school-educated policymakers – we need a mobilized, militant, and righteously infuriated working class to overthrow capitalism and fight for a new and improved socialist world.

TL;DR: If you want to actually help people, grad school isn’t necessary – especially public policy school. Good policies by themselves won’t achieve anything unless we have the power to implement them. Instead, join a socialist night school or Marxist book club, get unionized, and start organizing with the DSA.