We are all familiar with the old saw, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
As we watch our foreign and domestic polices flounder, I have begin to wonder about the definition of the word "broke", primarily with both sides of the aisle claiming virtually everything is indeed broken! If such is the case, I'm still waiting for someone to define exactly what "unbroke" looks like.
So, sitting on the front veranda this AM, enjoying a cup of steaming joe, a cigar and the sun rising over the blue Aegean, my mind wandered back to grad school, and two of my premier public policy profs, Floyd Durham (Economics) and Barry Epstein (Program Evalustion). Both of them had their act together.
Of the many approaches to social program evaluation, two are ever so intuitively attractive, yet really bankrupt. They are called "The Charity Model" and "The Pork Barrel Model" of program evaluation.
The "Charity Model" is pretty straight forward. It simply looks to see if a "need" exists, if the program in some way addresses the "need", if the actors in the program are sincere and diligent in addressing the need and if no one is seriously and involuntarily inconvenienced by the program. If those four criteria receive a "Yes", then that's all that is needed. Sort of like Ron Paul's idea of the community rising up to voluntarily see to the health care needs of the needy, rather than any "government program".
The "Pork Barrel Model" is equally straight forward. If the constituency receiving the benefits is satisfied, and no one is seriously and involuntarily inconvenienced by the program, that is also a sign of a successful program. Take, for example, "progressives" turning a blind eye to sub-prime mortgage abuses because it was getting more Americans into homes and millions of borrowers and lenders seemed to be happy - for a while.
Of course, neither model looks at inputs versus outcomes or "cost/benefit ratios" as it is commonly called. Further, neither model addresses whether or not all of the potential "needy" population is being served, if the number of "needy" is reduced or even if the "need" is valid as defined. Nor is there any evaluation of long term consequences. It's just a subjective, close cropped snapshot.
Both of these approaches fuel what I would call the "Fat, Dumb and Happy" model of society. In doing some searches on the web to brush up on program eval methodology, I found a paper from 1984 with the ever so apt title "Evaluating Programs the Whole World Already Calls Wonderful". While the content of the paper goes far beyond what I offer here, the title does parallel my "Fat, Dumb and Happy" issue. In short, just because no one is calling for something to be fixed, that doesn't mean it isn't, in many ways broken.
Back to the two examples given above. Ron Paul's "Charity Model" does indeed show that communities and institutions have, on occasion, risen to the task of caring for the some of needy in health care, and that can seem to meet the "Whole World Already Calls Wonderful" test, and can make selected people feel good about themselves. What it fails to address is the question of whether the general population of needy receives health care every time it is needed, no less routine or preventative care. All he is demonstrating is that some sincere people, without seriously inconveniencing others, provide some care to some needy. Of course, this approach has come crashing down on some 50 million or more uninsured Americans who now are effectively outside the "system" and cannot make life decisions based on an unpredictable and random "charity model".
As to the sub-prime fiasco, well, a lot of people were made happy in the short run. Both borrowers and investors. From a "Pork Barrel" view, all was well, for a while. Of course, since it met, for a time, the "Whole World Already Calls Wonderful" principle, no further thought was needed. However, once "reality" set in, probably more Americans lost their homes than new owners were created.
In foreign policy, there is the Bush invasion of Iraq, which was carefully crafted to avoid serious inconvenience for most Americans, and bolstered by "sincerity" in the justifications ("Charity Model"). And, of course, lots of "Pork Barrel" for the defense industry. Best of both worlds. And, a total fiasco, domestically and for Iraq.
How can we, as a society attempt to operate in the long run when our policies and programs are subjected to "evaluation" techniques so short sighted, deficient and totally debunked decades ago? Or, are we not only "Fat, Dumb and Happy", but intellectually lazy as well? In fact, wasn't one of the alleged handicaps of GWB identified as being "intellectually incurious"? And a fresh supply of darlings of the Far Right (Palin, Bachman, Perry, Cain) exhibit this same intellectual laziness, and Progressives have counterparts as well. They simply mirror society.
Think about these two models of "evaluation, and I'm sure you can add dozens of other policy decisions that are made using these simplistic measurements.