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Borde-nough: An abundance of advice

Published: September 4, 2009
Section: Opinions

There was an abundance of policymaking advice available for sampling earlier this week as various experts uncorked their wares and invited decision makers and the media to take a sip. Their produce came from fields far and wide– climate change, public health and Afghanistan.

The general public is not formally excluded from these tastings of the sometimes heady wines of policy. Written to persuade, reports and recommendations of expert bodies are often publicly available, and sometimes attract media attention. But the complexity and length of the work product of expert bodies, their sometimes vague, evasive, or jargon-laden content, and the sheer numbers such reports that are released on a regular basis have the effect of keeping out the hoi polloi.

That’s a shame. The public is not itself expert in fields like climate change or US-China relations. But when it comes to paying for ill-conceived policies, sending its children to fight in the boondocks, watching a few of its number make fortunes while the rest try their best to get by, and being pushed around by ambitious officials and the jack-booted fellows on whose violence official authority rests, the public’s expertise is second to none. Bringing that kind of expertise to bear before a recommendation becomes policy would save a great deal of trouble. Too often, however, reports that go unnoticed by the public influence official thinking, and a sickened country finds itself regurgitating policy choices that leaders in better touch with public opinion might never have allowed it to imbibe.

One can only hope that our leaders think before drinking in the recommendations offered this week. One report on climate change showed how easily a skillful drafter can translate the material interests of an expert body’s membership into recommendations delivered in the public interest. The United Kingdom’s Royal Society, an organization of British and Commonwealth scientists, did a remarkable job of broaching the subject of “Geoengineering the Climate” without openly appearing to be a Christmas list of demands for funding for big, dangerous science projects.

But such a list is certainly the next logical step. The Society noted that deliberate human intervention to alter the Earth’s climate would not have to be invoked “unless future efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are much more successful than they have been.” But the aim of the report– which was about geoengineering rather than how to avoid it– was to prod governments into allocating funds for research into the science of purposefully altering the world’s environment.

The report’s authors did not emphasize this self-interested goal. They would no doubt point out that their report acknowledges “major uncertainties regarding [geoengineering’s] effectiveness, costs, and environmental impacts.” Professor John Shepherd of the University of Southampton, the chairman of the Society committee that prepared the report, called it an “unpalatable truth” that geoengineering “will be the only option left” to control climate change if other options fail. But Shepherd and other scientists don’t really think geoengineering is “unpalatable.” Why else would they take pains to point out that it was “likely to be technically possible and… potentially useful,” and to call for “further research and development” of geoengineering– which, they warned, “could be our only hope”?

For some people, the very possibility of geoengineering reduces the incentive to forgo environmentally destructive behavior. Paying scientists to create a geoengineering pharmacopeia will seem to politicians to be an easier task than applying the preventive medicine of persuading states to concede a small aspect of their sovereignty to allow for global climate change rulemaking. At the end of the day, we will be left more dependent on scientists’ ability to produce effective geoengineering technology, and more beholden to the methods that do emerge, even if the environmental and political side effects of this treatment are equivalent to the those of chemotherapy on individuals.

While the climate change report spoke to big issues, another report dealt with little ones– who, in the estimation of the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, are in fact too big. The group of health experts who prepared the report are convinced that “local governments can play a crucial role in the fight against childhood obesity.” After citing well-known findings that the incidence of obesity in children has increased and that this has increased health care costs, they recommended measures that they believe would help reverse the trend.

What is troubling is the extent to which, in practice, the recommendations are likely to be implemented oppressively. To be sure, some of them, such as reducing junk food sales and advertising around schools and using police resources to increase opportunities for walking to and from school, seem difficult to mismanage, and would appear not to create heavy burdens for targeted communities.

But the committee also proposed to implement taxes on an undefined list of “high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and drinks,” and to offer “incentives to lure grocery stores into underserved neighborhoods.” In tandem, these initiatives will likely drive up the cost of food for people living in the affected communities. Taxes will directly increase prices of “bad” foods. Efforts to “lure” supermarkets may fail because disincentives to business in some communities are simply too great, or because they will “lure” only one store that will enjoy a local monopoly. The report devotes little attention to how cash-strapped communities can finance such schemes, or where individuals will come up with the money to pay higher grocery bills. Strangely, it largely avoids the subject of adult obesity.

The health report’s local focus was most intriguing. If childhood obesity is a national problem, why should these regulations be adopted piecemeal and (inevitably) incompletely by local governments? I suspect that it’s because these health experts are looking for guinea pigs. In their minds, the poorer a community is, the less likely it is to resist an arrogant social engineering effort imposed from outside. Although the report does not specify particular communities as targets, the tenor of the report and the substance of several of the recommendations leave little doubt that the poor ones are targeted. Never mind that food costs will go up, that failed efforts to lure grocers in combination with new taxes may leave communities even more underserved by grocers than before, and that the suggested policies could easily be enforced in ways that unfairly burden some groups in a given community more than others (as by taxing foods commonly eaten by a particular ethnic group ostensibly on account of their unhealthiness). For these experts, having a human laboratory is the primary concern; too bad for you if you wind up trapped in one of their cages.

President Barack Obama received plenty of advice this week concerning relations with a bigger human laboratory, Afghanistan. In what has become a familiar ritual, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of American and allied forces in Afghanistan, delivered a confidential report to the president arguing that “success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.” He wants more American troops.

At least since the Vietnam War, presidents have been using generals to do the dirty political chore of calling for more resources and men, basing their demands on information that, conveniently, they cannot reveal to the public. Even if one deems this practice acceptable, however, it is a charade if politicians do not spell out for the generals what victory means, and set reasonable time frames for either achieving it or going home. Obama has been no more interested in doing this than his predecessor in office. Preferring the powers of a “war president,” he will stand behind his man McChrystal– even if following this expert’s advice means an indefinite commitment to a combined deployment of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that is no smaller than that made by George W. Bush.

McChrystal’s recommendation was not given because the general woke up one day with brilliant new ideas about Afghanistan and decided to share them. Like other reports from generals demanding new commitments (how many have there been pertaining to Afghanistan, much less to Iraq?), McChrystal’s report was a product of political imperatives. The president needed a reasonable basis for telling those of his supporters who hoped he would reduce or eliminate America’s involvement in wars to talk to the hand. McChrystal, Obama’s expert, gave him what he needed.

Not all of the recommendations made in these reports will emerge as policy. But some will. The consequences may be bad. But those with a strong belief in the value of education can count on at least one benefit, if it can be called that. The public’s expertise in paying, struggling, and fighting will surely be deepened.