Friends, colleagues, and relatives from across the globe all seem to have the same questions: What is it like to be in Washington, DC, in the age of policy mayhem? What role is there for policy wonkery and expert advice when evidence, facts, intellectual consistency, and honesty are decomposing on the compost heap?
Grizzled veterans of many presidential administrations might answer that there never was any golden age when policy-makers consistently acted on the basis of strong evidence and careful reasoning, when legislators spoke the truth and were free of the influence of wealthy donors, when public policy was aligned with the public good rather than the narrow goals of special interests. But even the most jaded old hands among Republicans and Democrats alike concede that these are special days—yes, these are the most special days in the entire history of the country as we are regularly reminded in tweet storms.
Curious to gauge the attitude of Washington insiders, I devoted a few days in mid-December to attending a variety of events at key DC organizations. My overall impression is that most Beltway denizens have flipped DC to CD—cognitive dissonance. They continue to do research, conduct analyses, and provide expert guidance as if the nation’s leaders would give them thoughtful consideration.
My first visit was to the American Enterprise Institute, a respected bastion of the conservative establishment, for a discussion of agricultural research. Vincent Smith of the institute and Philip Pardey of the University of Minnesota summarized the findings of their white paper, which warned that by reducing the share of the US Department of Agriculture’s budget devoted to research, the federal government was weakening the competitive position of US farmers at a time when other countries are boosting agricultural research. Smith and Pardey encouraged federal investment not only in basic science but also in applied research of more immediate use to farmers, which is a departure from the standard conservative position that federal investment should be limited to basic science.
My next stop was at the Computing Research Association for an all-day meeting—organized with support from Rice University, Google, Microsoft Research, and several trade and professional organizations—on technology and jobs, with particular emphasis on the role of robotics and artificial intelligence. Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reviewed the history of US wage growth and stagnation, David Blustein of Boston College provided a ground-level view of the psychological and sociological stress created by the rapid evolution of the labor market, Edward Felton of Princeton University described the analysis he contributed when working at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Obama administration, Philip Longman of the Open Markets Institute argued that the primary threat to workers is not technological advances but the concentration of power in a few giant companies, and the day ended with a lively panel discussion in which experts from a range of ideological perspectives addressed policy challenges.
Then it was off to a meeting at the Brookings Institution, the well-known left-of-center think tank. Although the primary purpose of the meeting was to examine whether the patent system was operating effectively to nurture scientific and technological innovation, the day began with a wide-ranging discussion between Wall Street Journal reporter Greg Ip and Kevin Hassett, the recently appointed chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Hassett is a prominent spokesperson for the administration’s contention that its tax reform legislation will create many new jobs and raise wages. This is a hard sell at Brookings, which is a cosponsor of the Tax Policy Center, whose analysts project that the tax changes will have a relatively weak effect on economic growth. The patent discussion focused on the need to decrease the number of invalid patents that are being approved. Although there has been a general feeling that this is a problem, Michael Frakes of Duke University and Melissa Wasserman of the University of Texas provided empirical evidence that identified practices in the US Patent and Trademark Office that too strongly favored the granting of patents. The discussion was a refreshing instance when data and analysis were more important than ideological posturing.
Indeed, what was striking about this sample of Washington wonkery was how much it differed from the take-no-prisoners, accept-no-compromise, make-your-own-facts brouhaha that is presented on cable news channels. Although there is no doubt that political discourse has become coarser and more polarized, it is a mistake to see Washington as the source of the problem. It’s just the stage. The voters choose the firebrand legislators who come to DC to drain the swamp, but professional Washington is more drawing room than bog. The majority of people who work in government and the think tanks are far more pragmatic than ideological. Sure, there are screaming single-issue lobbyists and monomaniacal ideologues who make for good TV drama, but most of the discussions that take place off camera are boringly civil, well-informed, and respectful.
Of course, that does not mean that greed, moral righteousness, intolerance, fear, and lust for power are not widespread in Washington. These forces are prevalent throughout the nation—indeed, throughout humanity—and Washington provides a forum where they can be displayed. The tribe of experts who work in and around government are not unaware of this maelstrom of conflict—Toto, we’re not in Sweden anymore—and understand that it cannot be ignored in crafting practical policy prescriptions. But when the wild-eyed combatants eventually recognize that the failure to do anything in a world that is rapidly changing is a formula for failure, it will be helpful to have something practical at the ready to provide a catalyst for compromise.
I suppose this can be laughed away as pointy-headed idealism, but if the experts do their work honestly and rigorously, in the end reality will side with them because policies based on fantasy will fail. The economy will not grow on false facts, public health will not improve with false beliefs, public confidence will not improve with unfulfilled promises, and global peace will not be achieved by ignoring the interests of other countries.
But what about the core issues of science and technology? Who is providing expert guidance to the White House and cabinet secretaries? In many cases, no one. In advance of each new presidential administration the National Academies prepares a list of the key political positions to be filled by people with expertise in science, technology, and health, and in previous administrations the Academies have played an informal role in suggesting qualified candidates. A central goal of this effort was to see these positions filled quickly so that appropriate expertise would be available from the outset of the administration’s planning and policy development. It was cause for celebration when President Obama nominated John Holdren to be his science adviser a month before taking office.
As the current administration completes its first year, no one has been nominated to be science adviser or to fill any of the other key positions in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. No one has been proposed to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Other positions waiting to be filled include director of the Bureau of the Census, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environment and scientific affairs, under secretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, assistant administrator for research and development at the Environmental Protection Agency, director of the US Geological Survey, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the Department of the Interior, and director of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences. At the Department of Energy, there are no nominees for assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, assistant secretary for environmental management, assistant secretary for nuclear energy, under secretary for nuclear security, director of the Office of Science, and director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.
But is this evidence of malign neglect necessarily a bad thing? When viewing the actions of the people who have been appointed to key positions in the Departments of Energy or Interior or at the Environmental Protection Agency, perhaps the Robert Browning phrase “less is more,” which Mies van der Rohe applied to modern architecture, might be an apt slogan for the next few years in policy. We might be grateful to let the practical, faceless, slow-moving career federal deckhands keep the ship of state more or less on a steady course. And the nongovernment policy wonks looking for a receptive ear could take the advice I used to hear from my smartass teenage kids: Talk to the hand, the head’s not listening.