Policy Success/Policy Failure

Robert Farley writes about the fact that when you get something done right you tend not to get much credit for it:

These explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. Styles is certainly correct to argue that the American public is less than fully attentive to disasters that happen to brown people. However, I think that Galrahn is also right, and that there’s a very serious dilemma in this story [Haiti earthquake relief going well] for advocates of good governance. Sensible, responsive, well-staffed, well-funded governance tends to prevent horrible things from happening. When horrible things do happen, authorities respond quickly and effectively. Crisis prevention and effective crisis response, however, are inherently less interesting and less attention-getting than failed crisis response. If the 9/11 hijackers had been captured prior to conducting their attacks, very few people outside the intelligence community would have much recollection of a crucial policy victory. If the Bush administration had conducted adequate preparation for Katrina and responded effectively, there’d be relatively little shared memory of the disaster.

Success and failure in crisis response, consequently, have asymmetric political effect. The Obama administration’s response to the Haiti earthquake, in my view, has been a resounding success for responsible, capable governance. No one will remember that in six months. Bush’s response to Katrina will endure in the political memory for decades. On the one hand this is (politically) good for progressives, given that conservative efforts to gut governance tend to result in horrible disasters. On the other hand, because policy and execution failures stick in the mind longer than successes, it’s difficult to convince the general public of the importance of a responsible approach to government. In the rhetoric of anti-statist nutjobs, Katrina actually becomes an argument against adequate government, while success in Haiti fades from history.

The couple of times I’ve been brought in for meetings with members of the Obama economic policy team, this is brought home to me. Those of us brought in from the outside generally want to know why everything is so terrible. Those on the inside generally want to know why they’re not getting more credit for having (a) averted a much-worse looming catastrophe, and (b) mounted a policy response that seems a good deal more effective than what European elites are doing or than Japanese elites did after their financial meltdown. The answer, it seems to me, is that while it’s a little irrational of people to forget policy successes we also expect the people running the country to do their jobs properly. It’s great that the response to the financial crisis avoided a 1930s-style period of 20 percent unemployment, but that’s the job and you don’t get a gold star for marooning us at 10 percent.