I have been reading Kevin Drum’s blog for well over a decade at this point, starting way back in his Political Animal days at Washington Monthly. The last few years, I feel like he’s gone down a cranky, contrarian road, with a lot of unfortunate posts of the “I’ve looked at the data and this thing that people are upset about really isn’t that bad” variety—“There isn’t really a problem with teacher turnover,” “People are reasonable to feel disgusted by the homeless,” etc.
Having kept his current blog in my RSS reader nonetheless. I ran across his post from earlier this week about an academic article suggesting that “interventions meant to improve things almost never actually do”:
Is Stevenson right that nothing works? I’d say almost certainly—though note that this is only the case for social interventions, not things like vaccines or environmental changes.
Also worth a note: Stevenson points out that plenty of simple, direct interventions work fine. If you give people food, they’ll be less hungry. The failures arise for less obvious, more indirect questions. For example, does having more food affect graduation rates or make people less likely to steal stuff?
I think the latter point here about simple, direct interventions working fine is the most important part.
If you want to move something, push on it directly. Maybe you’re afraid of being seen pushing directly on it, though, so instead you push on something that is next to it. Maybe you feel like even that is too obvious; instead of pushing on the thing next to it, you pull on something you think might be connected to the wall, and because the wall is connected to the floor, you hope maybe that will tilt the floor that the thing is resting on. That way, the thing will move (and maybe even in the direction you were hoping it would) and better yet, the people who might get upset about the fact that you’re pushing on it won’t catch on.
This dynamic is behind all the hype around stuff like Nudge1. Instead of just doing the thing that will help, we go through all of these convoluted machinations in hopes that they’ll eventually get where we want to go.
If you want people to have more income, give them money. If you want people to be better educated, give them better schools. If you want more people to be employed, give them jobs.
Yes, there are always going to be unintended consequences, and sometimes the results are going to be counterintuitive (e.g., adding more lanes to the road will make traffic worse, not better). But we seem to have gotten ourselves to a point as a society where often we think that a solution isn’t worth trying unless it’s counterintuitive and contrarian—don’t give people money, that will just make them lazy! Don’t fund schools that are failing, that will just make them worse! But that’s crazy.
Honestly, I shouldn’t use the passive-voice there. We haven’t “gotten ourselves” to that point. We have been pushed to the point where we don’t believe we can fix problems with the obvious solutions, because there are a bunch of people who are interested in not fixing those problems, and they fund media and politicians and pundits to push that agenda.
And everyone should go listen to that If Books Could Kill episode about that book, too. ↩︎