Spring 2020 - 58605 - PA 392D - Theory and Philosophy of Public Policy II

Theory and Philosophy of Public Policy II

I grew up with the Aldous Huxley view of theory:

Man is so intelligent that he feels impelled to invent theories to account for what happens in the world. Unfortunately, he is not quite intelligent enough, in most cases, to find correct explanations. So that when he acts on his theories, he behaves very often like a lunatic.

This fits the experience of my generation. We grew up with Fascism in the rear-view mirror, Cultural Revolution a couple of suburbs over, and (for us guys) a horrifying manifestation of Permanent Revolution looming in the windshield. In my childhood, LBJ beat the pants off Goldwater, Humphrey and Nixon handily dispatched McCarthy and Reagan, and Tip O’Neill and Jerry Ford got along just fine, thank you very much. (I find very little in the current national debates to suggest that any of this was unwise.) Theory was speculation, but experiment was Reality. Please forgive me for being somewhat leery of the whole theoretical enterprise.

On the other hand,nature would be a mess if yang always won. If history is any guide, you will spend most of your time at the LBJ School foraging the Web for variables to add to your panel dataset and puzzling over the proper interpretation of heteroskedasticity-and autocorrelation-consistent t statistics on XTIVREG2. These statistics –and all things Big Data–are prone to Type 1 errors, and in the absence of sound expectations, so will you be. Like all levelheaded data analysts, you’ll address the problem by being good Bayesians. But here the circle closes: You’ll need priors. They should be sensible ones.

Most of the theories you’re going to need will be very specific, tailored to your research interests and thesis topic. But some issues cross boundaries. In this class we’ll consider three issues that all public policy researchers must deal with pretty much all the time: Is this work intellectually respectable? Are the findings politically acceptable? Are the conclusions institutionally actionable? If that pattern seems a little too pat to you (it does to me), consider another, less formal description: What’s the short list of theoretical material that all public policy researchers are expected to know? Although topics vary from one class to the next, we will be sure to consider issues of epistemology, public decision making, and institutional maintenance and operations.