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Policy Bubbles

The reason I’m out here in California is for a conference that’s about trying to understand how political advocacy works. Or, rather, about how you would tell whether or not it’s working, which is a difficult task.

This by no means answers the question, but Frank Baumgartner, a political scientist at UNC, offered a provocative analogy that helps explain why it’s so hard. The analogy he drew is between policy change and financial bubbles and panics. Status quo bias is extremely pervasive, and the overwhelming amount of time you can’t change anyone’s ideas. But sometimes a critical amount of mind-changing happens and then suddenly everyone notices that minds are changing and human herding behavior takes over. Consequently, even though shifts are unusual, when they do happen they tend to be rather dramatic — rare, sudden, discontinuous change.

Concretely, this reminds me of a twitter back-and-forth I had yesterday with John Walker and David Dayen where I was saying I didn’t understand the level of paranoia about the deficit commission. The odds against substantial change to Social Security are just so overwhelming. Baumgartner’s research indicates that even though I’m right about that it’s not necessarily a mistake to worry as much as Walker and Dayen are — when big changes happen they tend to happen rapidly, so one shouldn’t really expect clear “gathering storm clouds” or anything.

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