Posts tagged with: Public Policy

One of the real challenges in arguing for various social policies is getting reliable data about the effectiveness of government programs. This is particularly the case with regard to welfare spending. It’s often very difficult to measure a particular program’s effectiveness, however. But this is an essential task, as Jennifer Marshall writes:

The measure of our compassion for the poor should not be how much we spend on federal antipoverty programs. Compassion must be effective.

We ought to define success by how many escape dependence on welfare to pursue their full potential as human beings. To measure our commitment to the poor by the number of dollars spent on antipoverty programs is to diminish human dignity.

Researchers in the UK have written a report arguing for an approach to public policy that integrates “randomized controlled trials” (RCTs) into attempts to measure the impacts, intended and otherwise, of government programs. In “Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials,” (HT: Hacker News) the authors argue that RCTs are used widely in the private sector, but at least in the UK they “are not routinely used to test the effectiveness of public policy interventions.”

They go on to explain why RCTs are particularly helpful in determining the effectiveness of a particular program:

What makes RCTs different from other types of evaluation is the introduction of a randomly assigned control group, which enables you to compare the effectiveness of a new intervention against what would have happened if you had changed nothing.

The introduction of a control group eliminates a whole host of biases that normally complicate the evaluation process – for example, if you introduce a new “back to work” scheme, how will you know whether those receiving the extra support might not have found a job anyway?

Check out the whole report which provides details on the nine suggested steps for implementation (PDF).

The Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) 2012 draft report to Congress on costs and benefits of federal regulations states that “agencies should carefully consider how best to obtain good data about the likely effects of regulation; experimentation, including randomized controlled trials, can complement and inform prospective analysis, and perhaps reduce the need for retrospective analysis.”

This last point is somewhat dubious, for as the title of the UK report indicates, the process of evaluating the effectiveness of public policy interventions is ongoing: Test, learn, adapt, repeat! The ninth step is actually to “return to Step 1 to continually improve your understanding of what works.” But in any case it might well be that RCBs are going to be one tool increasingly relied upon to provide some helpful insight into what works and what doesn’t.

As might be expected, the question of “scientific consensus” and its presumptive role in shaping our public and ecclesial policy was raised in the context of a decision by the Christian Reformed Church to make a formal public statement regarding climate change.

Jason E. Summers notes in an insightful piece addressing the complexities of scientific authority in our modern world that “scientific claims have substantial bearing on many public issues. But unless the nature of these claims and the basis for their authority are better understood, they cannot be meaningfully incorporated within the political process.”

One of the ways of better understanding the public role of science is to understand precisely what consensus does and does not mean. As Summers writes in the context of delineating “scientific consensus,”

science develops confidence in its findings on the basis of evidence accumulated under the methodological norms of the field, but it does not conclude in a final sense. Thus, a product of scientific inquiry may be highly robust—having well explained all available data and made accurate predictions—but it is not a final and absolute truth claim because it is predicated on evidence that continues to accumulate with time.

A related point is that consensus, no matter what kind, whether popular or expert, is an imperfect indicator of truth and not determinative of it. That is, truth is not created by consensus but rather by correspondence with reality.

Abraham Kuyper makes this point in his reflections on common grace in science and art. He observes,

Modern science is dominated by distrust when it comes to our own deepest sense of life, and that distrust is nothing but unbelief. What people lose thereby they attempt to recover by locating their fulcrum in the consciousness of the prevailing majority. Whatever is generally regarded as true in scientific circles people will dare to accept for themselves.

What people generally agree upon in this manner is called the truth, the truth that people profess to honor. Pressed a bit further, they sense that such a general agreement constitutes no proof at all, so they suppose that only what I can make so clear to all persons of sound mind and sufficient education such that they finally understand and agree with it belongs to what is scientifically established.

The role of scientific consensus is absolutely central to determining what ought (or ought not) be done by various institutions (governmental or otherwise) with respect to climate change. As Andy Crouch’s original piece illustrates, the scientific “near-consensus” on climate change is the latest in a long line of scientific determinations (such as evolution) to which the public is bound to accommodate itself.

But if we confuse consensus with absolute truth, and conflate scientific conclusions with ethical imperatives, we are unduly influenced by the “priestly voice” of science and invite the tyranny of scientific consensus.

In the forthcoming Spring 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Wayne Grudem. His new book, Politics According to the Bible, is an essential resource for thinking through political issues in light of Scripture (Zondervan 2010). If you write about faith and politics, this book is a handy resource to have at your disposal. I find myself using it more and more as a resource in my own writing.

He is also the author of Business for the Glory of God, which is definitely a book that fits nicely within Acton’s mission. It was a delight to talk with Wayne during this interview. He is extremely gracious and kind and a serious thinker who contributes so much not to just issues of policy for Christians, but theology as well. Be sure to check the upcoming print or online edition for the rest of the interview.

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Dr. Wayne Grudem is the research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for 20 years. He has served as the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as President of the Evangelical Theological Society (1999), and as a member of the translation oversight committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible. He also served as the general editor for the ESV Study Bible (Crossway Bibles, 2008). Dr. Grudem’s latest book is Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan, 2010). He recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.

It seems that political partisanship has been especially toxic in recent years. What can Christians do to be an effective witness against the hyper-partisan politics that many say is bad for the country?

I don’t think people should avoid being partisan. People should stand firmly for the right policies, as they understand them. What we can avoid is failing to act with kindness and graciousness towards those with whom we disagree.

When I encourage Christians to influence governments for good, this does not mean an angry, belligerent, intolerant, judgmental, red-faced and hate-filled influence, but rather a winsome, kind, thoughtful, loving, and a persuasive influence that is suitable to each circumstance and that always protects the other person’s right to disagree. But one also has to be uncompromising about the truthfulness and moral goodness of the teachings of God’s Word.

I want to encourage Christians to be careful of their attitudes and not to bring reproach on their cause by acting with hateful attitudes toward others. However, I do not think that the solution to political partisanship in the United States is some kind of compromise in the middle of two party’s differences. This is because I think in many cases there are morally right and wrong positions, and we should continue to hope that the morally right positions will triumph and the wrong positions will be defeated in the normal course of ordinary political discussion and by democratic elections.

What are your thoughts on the tea party movement? Is it a movement Christians should be involved with?

I am in favor of following the original intent of the Constitution, and I am in favor of lower taxes and less government control on people’s lives. I think, as I explain in my book, those positions are consistent with Biblical teachings on the role of government and the way judges should function in a nation. In the Bible, judges have the role of interpreting and applying laws, but not of changing laws or making laws. That is the difference between conservative and liberal views of the courts. So those are good emphases in the tea party movement, as I understand it: those are emphases on a limited role for judges, the original meaning of the Constitution, and lower taxes and smaller government. Those are consistent with Biblical teachings. Now, you know, as in any movement there can be diverse views, but from what I know of the tea party movement, I’ve found that it has been a good thing.

You supported Governor Romney in the last presidential election. Do you think there is a credible argument for not supporting Romney, solely because of his Mormon faith?

Yes, an argument can be made that it is a significant political liability. I don’t think I recognized how strong the suspicion of Mormonism was, and the anti-Mormon sentiment among some evangelical Christians. Mormon theology is, frankly, very different from evangelical Christian theology on what we believe about the Bible, about the nature of God, about who Jesus is, about the nature of the Trinity, about the nature of Salvation and the nature of the Church. Those are incredibly huge differences in doctrine. And while I can support a Mormon candidate for political office, and I am very happy to work with Mormon friends on political issues, I cannot cooperate with them on spiritual issues because our theology is so different.

I still think that Governor Romney is a highly qualified candidate, and an honorable and trustworthy and wise man, and if he wins the nomination, of course I will support him and vote for him.

My commentary this week focuses on the how the rise in prices at the pump is impacting the poor. Currently, in many areas of the country a gallon of gas is now priced over $4. I also argue that we need a more coherent energy policy coming from leaders in Washington. Part of the argument against drilling in ANWR (Arctic Refuge) over a decade ago was that the oil wouldn’t hit the market for 10 years. That’s a very shortsighted way of thinking about meeting our energy needs. We need leaders in Washington to work for us not against us.

Perhaps now a forgotten event, former Senator Jesse Helms in 1982 waged a dramatic battle against a federal gasoline tax hike of five cents. The tax hike had bipartisan support, including the support of President Ronald Reagan. However, Helms fought virtually alone with only a small cadre of tax opponents. He eventually lost on the measure but as he was traveling back to North Carolina he stopped at a rural Hardees restaurant. Truckers recognized Helms and he was greeted with thunderous applause for his efforts. Helms stood up not just for business interests like the trucking industry, but the rural poor, who are hit hardest by increases in gas prices. The current federal tax on a gallon of unleaded gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon and the mean state tax on a gallon is 26.6 cents. My commentary is printed below:

High Gas Prices Devastating to Poor

by Ray Nothstine

Religious leaders staging a fast over budget cuts on social spending have not offered to fast over higher gas prices, even though the impact on the poor is devastating. In fact, there is very little focus on the rise in energy costs, with political and religious leaders remaining largely silent. Yet, when they speak on the issue, they often do not have your best interests in mind.

At a recent visit to a wind turbine plant, President Obama responded to one questioner’s concern about rising prices by laughing and saying, “If you’re complaining about the price of gas and you’re only getting 8 miles per gallon, you might want to think about a trade-in.” The president didn’t say which vehicle he was talking about. But a 2003 Hummer H2, rated among the worst for gas mileage, scores 10-14 miles per gallon.

But for most people a truck that is getting 8 miles per gallon is the one that delivers their food. This is true too for charitable food banks as delivery costs cut into the number of people they can feed. Food banks also depend on volunteer drivers to deliver meals to shut-ins.

Many individuals and families are already curtailing discretionary spending to save for gas. In turn, more money and jobs exit the U.S. economy for oil exporting countries.

The national average for a gallon of gas is currently $3.79. Some American cities are well over $4 per gallon. The price, up almost a $1 since last year at this time, has some experts forecasting $5 for Memorial Day.

While oil markets can be complex, free market alternatives offer better relief than heavily subsidized “green energies” propped up by government. A new study in the United Kingdom by Stuart Young Consulting and the John Muir Trust again pointed out what previous studies have found: Wind output is often less than anticipated and is an unreliable source of energy.

Likewise, electric cars are rejected by consumers shopping for fuel economy—even though they are subsidized with tax credits. Rachel Slobodien of the Heritage Foundation points out that people are instead buying more affordable super fuel economy cars with traditional engines that get upwards of 50 miles per gallon.

Some lawmakers from both parties in oil producing states are asking for more domestic drilling, more refineries, and uniform state standards on gasoline mixture requirements. All of these proposals will help lower prices and could add hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

President Obama has responded by saying an increase in domestic drilling “will help some.” He also signaled he may be willing to tap more of the Canadian oil sands, but at the same time, he wants to cut oil imports by one-third.

High prices at the pump can offer a moment to pause too and remember a spiritual truth. The price of gas not only draws attention to the Middle East, but it draws our attention back to the Garden of Eden that tradition places in that oil-rich region.

Oil itself is decayed vegetation and plankton that has seeped into the ground, forming over millions of years. At one time wildlife was abundant and forests were especially lush in the garden. In the creation story we are reminded that after the fall of man, we have to toil for resources (Genesis 3:19).

While we are bound to labor, 17th century Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry reminds us, “Let not us, by inordinate care and labor, make our punishment heavier than God has made it; but rather study to lighten our burden.”

Similarly, John Paul II declared, “Besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.”

This is good advice. The free market helps to sort out those effective alternatives, encouraging us to drill for oil responsibly at home, and protecting us from costly utopian schemes that drive up energy prices. The market is also our best hope for developing renewable energy technologies that are economically feasible.

We know too well that leaders in Washington reflect the fall of man, but they are not working to lighten our burden right now. As the price of gas approaches $5 per gallon, perhaps its rise may help us to refocus on new ways to meet the needs of those who have the most to lose from rising fuel costs.

I just read today that the cars traded in for the Cash for Clunkers program are rendered unusable by running liquid glass through the engines.

Has anyone considered the impact of this on the poor? What has happened is that a huge number of low cost cars are being removed from the market. These are cars low income earners would ordinarily drive or teenagers would buy them who need to get to school or work.

What happens when we radically reduce the supply of a particular good? If there are no good substitutes, then the price goes up. In effect, this is a tax on the lower end of the market.

“Progressive” policy isn’t always good for the poor. Acton has been making that point for years. Hopefully, it is becoming more obvious.

The Acton Institute is co-sponsoring a symposium hosted by The Heritage Foundation at the University of Michigan’s campus. The event will take place:

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 12:45 PM

Michigan Union Building
530 South State Street
Ann Arbor, Michigan

The future of liberty depends on reclaiming America’s first principles. What are those principles, and what do they mean for today? The First Principles Initiative is one of the 10 Transformational Initiatives making up The Heritage Foundation’s Leadership for America campaign. The publications and programs of this Initiative seek to provide a much-needed education for students, policymakers, and citizens about the ideas of liberty and constitutional self-government, with the objective of reorienting our politics and public policy to the principles of the American Founding.

Director of Acton Media and Research Fellow, Jay W. Richards, will speak on the topic of Conservative Answers to Environmental Questions at 2:15PM

For more information, please contact Emily Sankot Kayrish at (202) 608-6266 or e-mail: specialevents@heritage.org

There’s a long-running debate among public policy commentators concerning the prudence of pursuing an all-or-nothing agenda or moving incrementally toward a particular goal.

How much accommodation is wise if that accommodation does make movement, however small, towards an ideal state of affairs, and yet also reinforces a system that is structurally opposed to the ultimate realization of that same ideal? When is it politically prudent to let the perfect potentially be the enemy of the good?

These questions in the context of all sorts of policy issues, but some examples include the libertarian concern to move toward a minimal or non-existent state, the pro-life concern to make abortion non-existent, and the gay “marriage” concern to legitimize and legalize same-sex partnerships.

The past week has seen a significant victory in this third arena in the state of California. When the state supreme court validated the practice of legal recognition of same-sex “marriage,” it cited the long history of the state government recognizing similar rights, privileges, and responsibilities for same-sex couples. That is, the incrementalist same-sex marriage approach, which sought sanction for same-sex adoption, same-sex partner health benefits, and so on, paved the way for the courts to recognize same-sex “marriage” as the last in a discernible line of logical public policy progression.

Citing a long list of moves by the state legislature to “equalize” treatment of same-sex couples (PDF of decision here, summary here), the majority concluded that “the current California statutory provisions generally afford same-sex couples the opportunity to enter into a domestic partnership and thereby obtain virtually all of the benefits and responsibilities afforded by California law to married opposite-sex couples.”

The perfectionist argument has been often based on a sort of Zeno’s paradox for public policy: accommodation or incrementalism may improve the state of affairs, but it likewise removes the possibility of achieving total victory. At least in the case of California and same-sex partnerships, that paradox seems to have been resolved in favor of the incrementalist approach.

A quote from T. H. Green, refuting the view that the law’s “only business is to prevent interference with the liberty of the individual,” construed as doing what you like as long as it does not infringe on others’ rights to do what they want. Green writes:

The true ground of objection to ‘paternal government’ is not that it violates the ‘laissez faire’ principle and conceives that its office is to make people good, to promote morality, but that it rests on a misconception of morality. The real function of government being to maintain conditions of life in which morality shall be possible, and morality consisting in the disinterested performance of self-imposed duties, ‘paternal government’ does its best to make it impossible by narrowing the room for the self-imposition of duties and for the play of disinterested motives.

From Green’s Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (PDF) [1883], quoted in Himmelfarb, The De-Moralization of Society, p. 152.

See also, “Moral Duties and Positive Rights.”

A new initiative pioneered by Sojourners/Call to Renewal is called “Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” Included in the platform are “calls for bills that would push for border enforcement while improving guest worker programs and offering chances for illegal immigrants to obtain legal status,” according to the NYT.

The NYT piece points out the potential for this to be a unifying issue for evangelicals, even though few if any prominent politically conservative evangelicals are overtly associated with Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. “The concerns of the coalition mirror those of many evangelical leaders who have often staked out conservative positions on other social issues or who have avoided politics entirely,” writes Neela Banerjee as she points to the cases of Dr. Richard Land of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Rev. Joel Osteen.

The signatories to the group’s open letter include the executive director of my denomination, Rev. Jerry Dykstra of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Some of the language in the letter is a bit mealy-mouthed, as might be expected, but I think the statement does capture the spirit of some of the most relevant scriptural principles.

Perhaps the section that some conservatives will find most problematic is the fourth principle: “We believe in the rule of law, but we also believe that we are to oppose unjust laws and systems that harm and oppress people made in God’s image, especially the vulnerable (Isaiah 10:1-4, Jeremiah 7:1-7, Acts 5:29, Romans 13:1-7).”

Many argue that the rule of law regarding illegal immigration needs to be reinforced and respected first, before any of the proposed guest worker or amnesty programs can be effective, no ifs, ands, or buts. And it might also be debatable precisely how a shared “set of common moral and theological principles” ought to be translated into public policy. This raises the question of what is the intent or purpose of law.

The letter says that immigration reform must be “fair and compassionate.” Is the end of the law justice? Love? Mercy? Peace? All of the above? I’ve been trained to understand the normative principle for social ethics, and the behavior of supra-personal entities or institutions, to be justice, as distinguished from (although not opposed to) love. It seems to me that Christians working out of a shared and common sense of obligation to love our neighbors can have legitimate and valid disagreements over precisely these sorts of questions.

With all that said, I think the letter gets it mostly right, at least on this point:

“The current U.S. immigration system is broken and now is the time for a fair and compassionate solution. We think it is entirely possible to protect our borders while establishing a viable, humane, and realistic immigration system, one that is consistent with our American values and increases national security while protecting the livelihood of Americans.”

Whoever wrote this deserves an award for managing to keep all of the various threads together. It’s almost a perfect storm of public policy ineptitude:

Just in case you lost track of the bouncing ball, here it is: Virginia has finally put the crisis-ignoring haters of truth in their place by passing a roads package to encourage the use of cars that are destroying the planet, so people can reach their sprawling subdivisions that Virginia is trying to keep in check with tax-subsidized conservation easements that will grow less popular as corn grows more expensive thanks to ethanol mandates from a federal government that is also mandating a cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay whose pollution will be made worse by corn farming.

I’m almost positive that there’s a really powerful moral to this story having to do with good governmental intentions going awry or something, but I’m laughing too hard to tease it out and I really need to get to bed, so go ahead and figure it out for yourselves.

HT: Planet Gore