The real problems of policy schools

Attention Conservation Notice: Policy schools have a bunch of problems, but the WashPo writers missed or mischaracterized most of them.

Additional note: for some reason, my ability to proofread today appears to be more in the toilet than usual. A thousand apologies. I’ll keep editing for clarity.

So this op-ed from the Washington Post has been making the rounds, and it’s irritating me a great deal, largely because one of the authors, Naomi Schaefer Riley, just bothers me. Everything she ever published in the WSJ set my teeth on edge, so I am hardly an unbiased reader–my fault, not hers. This piece is a larger echo of her other complaints about universities writ large, except she’s not complaining about tenure (which, as I explained yesterday, is a bit like worrying about Bigfoot at this point; tenure has eroded, and it’s about a millionth as important as people like Riley like to make it.) Their critique comes down to:

1. An overemphasis on global and national problems rather than state and local;

2. Academic research has little to say about day-to-day management problems of government (I’m going to have to break this gently to my public management colleagues, as they spend all their time worrying about the institutional problems that lead to and/or resolve day-to-day management problems), particularly in the over-emphasis on economics.

3. These schools aren’t training people to go into government (only a small percentage of Kennedy school grads go to state and local government), etc:

4. And these schools are a mishmash of home disciplines which causes an identity crisis:

Many schools have begun to look like a mishmash of the academic departments from which their faculty members hail — such as political science, economics and sociology. But those people may have no more or less interest than colleagues from their home departments in shaping actual policy. Of course, many of these schools draw at least some faculty members from politicians who have lost elections or wonks whose parties are out of power in Washington. But such celebrity instructors are short-timers and do little to draw the academic faculty — which dominate the schools — out of their bubbles.

Easiest potshot in the world: those academics and their bubbles.

There are shades of truth in all these, but these are problems to be found just about everywhere in governance and politics. There is an overemphasis, for example, on national and global issues in the media. Universities emphasize scholars that can demonstrate “high impact” and that means attaining federal grants, getting hits in the highest impact journals, getting picked up by national media. “I helped make main street in Schlubbville more vibrant and walkable” is nice, but it is not going to get you promoted in most major research universities.

And that is actually the problem with this op-ed. They are far too focussed on treating the east coast schools like the Kennedy School and Woodrow Wilson as what’s out there for policy schools. So, in no particular order, here are the first few reasons why this emphasis leads them astray:

1. They conflate public policy and public management, and while these topics are related, they are not the same thing. Public policy tends to be general and focussed on content areas, public management tends to focus on institutions and individuals who enact policy (and my field, planning).

2. The highest ranked public policy schools are not always the highest ranked public management schools. USC has hired on a bunch of folks who study the federal bureaucracy, but plenty study state and city management as well. But they are not likely to be found in the brand name policy schools like Kennedy, Woodrow Wilson or even Taubmann.

3. Public policy and public management graduates often do not end up in the same jobs, though sometimes they do, and training public managers is a different smoke than the 1970s version these folks seem to think it is. Even though we are all supposed to lay awake nights worrying about gummint employees, the number of people in the federal bureaucracy has remained largely the same since 1962, and is smaller now than it was then. Managerial jobs at the state and local level, which is what these writers seem to be worried about–employs a much larger percentage of people, but the actual numbers of ranked positions open has gone down even as employment in the sector has gone up–many are field positions rather than managerial positions: Driving snow plows, walking a beat, teaching 3rd graders. In the mean time, nongovernmental employment for many policy grads (and for many public management grads) has emerged as an important part of the labor force: with the push to privatization, many managers in state and local governments are basically contract managers for experts housed in private consulting firms. Or, alternatively, many have moved into the nonprofit sector. So that idea that policy and management schools should be producing experts for government is not necessarily correct–it’s only a part of the labor market. Many of our policy grads go work for politicians; they are staffers for particular people rather than managers for public institutions.

So that’s the problem with their assumptions in my read.

My problems with policy schools in no particular order:

1. They are housed in very expensive, very exclusive, very elite private schools. This is not, as I said, true of public management programs, where places like Virginia Tech, Texas A & M, and Indiana have shined. But it policy schools are in the expensive privates, which reinforces a cycle of affluent families sending students to Ivies where they then funnel into positions of influence in politics and public policy. The authors of the op-ed lump Brandeis, Wilson, and Dewey together, but these men held very different views on how to manage complex problems. In Dewey’s case, it wasn’t to set up elite teams of experts; Dewey treated democracy as a method in epistemology that could and should be used to inform policy in the public interest.

2. This problem means that policy schools are not intellectually diverse, nor are they likely to be socio-demographically diverse, and those two problems commingle. You can’t swing a shovel without hitting a million old white dudes who want to tell you all about their public policy expertise. And it’s fine to have them represented, but they don’t need to be the only people in Congress, in the bureaucracy, on the TV and on book covers.

This isn’t some politically correct plea for diversity for its own sake, though I do think diversity for its own sake has a great deal to recommend it. Instead, it’s a Deweyan imperative for governing cosmopolitan cities, states, and nations via democracy.

I’m not likely to cry too many tears over conservatives who complain that there aren’t enough conservative proffies in policy schools (see the straight line between and elite university and the American Enterprise Institute noted in the op-ed). There are plenty of cozy relationships between universities and both right and left wing think tanks (a growing labor market for our graduates) even if the average professor is likely to be Democrat. But ones that espouse particular conservative ideologies hit the lottery: Condoleeza Rice, Greg Mankiw, Milton Friedmann, etc etc. The reality is, there are few true radicals in either direction on most policy school faculties because social science doesn’t lend itself to radical or reactionary positions (one of the advantages of the social sciences, actually).

3. But that’s a problem, too: these programs are completely dominated by social scientists and lawyers who act like social scientists, and in particular, economists. The infighting between economists and political scientists and sociologists is entertaining to those of us who actually hold policy-related, multidisciplinary PhDs, but it’s less interesting that the larger problem of: don’t the humanities and sciences also inform policy? And they do; they just do so from departments rather than policy schools. Bioethics is a big deal for public policy, but few policy schools have bioethicists. Med schools do. So do philosophy departments. So do religion departments. The attempts among social scientists to exclude such explicitly normative considerations from public policy schools leads to inherent dysfunction and arbitrary limits because of the nature of the beast–public policy and its roots in the ‘public interest’–are inherently normative. The tendency to draw a strict line between public policy and things like bioethics seems founded more in disciplinary allegiances than defensible in terms of relevance to public policy.

Which gets me to a much more serious identity problem for policy schools; the line between what is and what is not public policy. If we do take Dewey seriously, we must get to a point of believing that the entire university is called to the betterment of human society in such a way that the arts and sciences inform public as well as individual life within that public. There is also a less abstract problem: technology, commerce, and cultural questions tends to get less attention in public policy schools than their actual importance to public policy would merit as technology is viewed as the purview of the sciences and engineering, commerce the purview of business schools, and culture the purview of the liberal arts.

Leo Strauss noted that political science has not done much to stop political conflict. Whenever I read op-eds like this one and get me to thinking about where policy belongs in intellectual life, I always go back to John Henry Newman:

Reflect, Gentlemen, how many disputes you must have listened to, which were interminable, because neither party understood either his opponent or himself. Consider the fortunes of an argument in a debating society, and the need there so frequently is, not simply of some clear thinker to disentangle the perplexities of thought, but of capacity in the combatants to do justice to the clearest explanations which are set before them,—so much so, that the luminous arbitration only gives rise, perhaps, to more hopeless altercation.

Goodbye Margaret Thatcher

I doubt I agreed with a single one of her policy positions–if I did, I never encountered it–but I admired her madly anyway. She was an early political role model to me, at a time when American girls were presented with precious few roles for women in politics besides “wife” whose job was to dispense adoring looks–or oddballs who, wonderful as though they were, struck one more like maiden aunts than mothers. Thatcher established (for me) that one could run a country and still give out her own adoring looks for her beloved husband, Denis, and that he seemed to return in equal adoration.

Yahoo has a nice slideshow.

What I learned from Robert Caro

Robert Caro came to give the Dennis and Brooks Holt Distinguished Lecture last night. That sponsored lecture allows USC to attract distinguished thinkers on politics and the media.

Caro was so charming in every way–an amazing story-teller, with a lovely New York boy accent–and I loved so much of what he said it’s hard to distill.

For one thing, I love how Caro manages to humanize Lyndon Johnson without romanticizing him. Caro has been able to demonstrate why LBJ is so important to the left–and how effective a political genius he was in accomplishing things for people–like rural Texans–that are normally not the beneficiaries of public policy. And just how ruthless he was in doing so.

The second thing I took away was his incredible patience. It doesn’t seem to bother him that, in his 80s now, he may or may not get to the end of his LBJ project before it’s time for him to exit. And he does seem to have another project in mind–but he refused to answer that question when asked because he’s superstitious. I love this–I really don’t like to discuss nascent work, either, which many people rather treat like a weakness. Well, if Robert Caro can do it, I can, too. I don’t like to talk away ideas before I write them.

In addition to his interest in new projects, he admitted last night that he reads Trollope, which made me squeal with delight. I love Trollope, but whenever I am reading these old, long meandering 19th century novels, there is a nagging person inside my head telling me that I am wasting my time, that nothing these novelists have to say matters to the world, and that, at middle-age, I only have so much reading time left. If a guy in his 80s can spend his free time reading Trollope, and his working time working for 8 years on a biography of roughly 3 months of a man’s life, then I can let time go lightly, too.

Perhaps Ann Coulter should try for a guest slot on the “Love Boat” or “Murder, She Wrote” next

That’s usually what washed-up pseudo-celebs do when they become unhappy with their (usually entirely deserved) relegation to oblivion.

It’s really hard to even write this post because there really is nothing about Ann Coulter that doesn’t disgust me–I like my conservative commentary with actual content in it, which is why I am a regular reader of material from Cato and NR.

She’s just a fame monger, and I’m not sure why anybody pays attention to her except that she’s blonde and says mean things, routinely, like somehow being snotty equals being hard-hitting and being common equals being populist. It was boring and predictable 10 years ago when Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore patented it.

Here is a response from Tim Shriver to Coulter’s mean-ass, petty Twitter: I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard. (during the debate)

Here is the money quote from Shriver:

I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.

And here I was just wondering if Coulter meant “retard” as “person who actually uses reason in debate instead of playground invective.”

Amateur Hour: Stupid versus smart image politics, and is it really that hard to find dirty dishes to wash?

OOoooo yes it’s a new liberal media attack on poor dear TEA party hero Paul Ryan: this story in the WashPo notes that he put his family through a fake photo op at a soup kitchen for reasons that really make little sense to anybody. I see one of his kids writing a Bristol Palin type memoir soonish.

Image politics bites back: who would have thought that, apparently, pictures of you washing clean pans can make you look like a fool when people actually report on what you did. You mean pictures aren’t enough? I guess not.

The comments on the story are, as always, dumb: Ooooo doncha ya know, that Ohbummer does the same thing with hugging pizza guys.

Um, no, Obama does not do the same thing. His people are really competent at controlling images. That’s the difference. He doesn’t have to photoshop the hug. Or hire an actor to play a pizza guy to hug or a janitor to fist bump. If something cute or human or inspiring is staged, as they undoubtedly are, they take a picture and circulate it widely. It’s called image politics, and it’s as old as politicians kissing babies.

But they don’t kiss dolls and then try to tell people that it was a real baby with typhus and aren’t they brave for kissing it? Gah! HOW DO YOU MESS UP A PHOTO OP AT A SOUP KITCHEN? Amateur hour.

The millions and scads that Romney has in money should be getting him better staffer than this. Everybody who is a pro in politics knows you don’t ask a volunteer if a candidate can come in. You do actually ask somebody on payroll with a title that has “director” in it, for precisely the reasons outlined here in the WashPo follow up with the charity’s president: many public charities steer clear of endorsing candidates because they know they will lose donations if they appear to be throwing in behind a particular candidate.

We all know this. How can Ryan’s people not know this? How in God’s name could anybody have thought that nobody would talk about a candidate playing with clean dishes for the cameras?

They would have been FINE just talking with volunteers and getting their pictures taken shaking hands and thanking real volunteers. FINE. But no.