Technology, Policy, and Sustainability
These are the week 1 readings. For each reading, I’ve written some questions and notes for you to consider as you read the work …
1. Theory and Practice in Policy Analysis, Chapter 1 – Most people have not spent much time thinking about the approach or perspective we ought to use when making important decisions. A major goal of this class is to teach the perspective and tools of a “policy analyst”. This first chapter serves as a bit of an introduction to some of the ideas of how that ought to work, which is actually still being debated. This chapter basically asks: what is the point of policy analysis? I would suggest that it is actually a more complicated question than it seems and there are different reasonable answers. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
Questions to think about: What do you think of the different “models” of the ways that analysis contributes to the policy process? Any of them seem better/worse than others in your experience? If we are doing policy-relevant research/analysis, what should our goals be? Is policy analysis really different from science? Do you agree with the author throughout or do you take issue with his perspective anywhere?
2. Theory and Practice in Policy Analysis, Chapter 3 – Around the world (and especially in any locations that have ties to the US), benefit-cost analysis is the primary decision-making criteria of governments and corporations. Doing a benefit-cost analysis is pretty conceptually simple (you may already have experience with BCA). But there are a lot of important assumptions that go into BCA, most of which are never even considered by those who actually carry it out. This chapter (and the next reading) basically dig into the ethics of BCA, including ways that it might be unfair. We already use this tool all the time to make important decisions, and these readings dig into what BCA can and can’t tell us.
Questions to think about: What is the issue with using prices to estimate benefits and what is the correct way of framing them? Should the value of (all) things be based on the number of people that use them? What are some issues with “willingness-to-pay” as a stand-in for economic value? What is the Pareto criterion and why is it almost impossible to meet? What is the Kaldor-Hicks criterion and what are some ethical issues with it? What are some of the practical/political issues with the way that BCA is applied? What do you think about the Precautionary Principle as an alternative to BCA? In the end, is BCA a useful tool?
3. Lave “Benefit-Cost Analysis: Do the Benefits Exceed the Costs?” –BCA is an extremely common tool that has generally been adopted as the primary decision criteria in most policy analysis circles. Lave here is pushing back against the dominance of that culture, attempting to illustrate that BCA is not a perfect tool and attempting to specifically point out ways that it doesn’t reflect our values. What is Lester Lave’s real argument here? Is it an argument against benefit-cost analysis (BCA) or something more subtle? What is utilitarianism and how does this essay relate to it? What are the weaknesses of BCA? When should we use BCA (on what type of problems)? How should we interpret the output of a BCA?
4. Theory and Practice in Policy Analysis, Chapter 4 – One of the problems of BCA is that it isn’t great at dealing with uncertainty, which is an important feature of a lot of real-life problems. This, of course, means that someone is going to develop a new tool that can handle uncertainty pretty well: Decision Analysis. It can be a pretty informative tool, but the amount of work it takes to do it properly is a big step up from BCA.
Questions to think about: What is the difference between BCA and DA, both in terms of the methods and the implications of those methods? What do you think are the benefits of doing a DA over a more traditional BCA? What are the challenges of doing a DA? What types of useful additional information can you get from a DA?
5. Theory and Practice in Policy Analysis, Chapter 5 – A big challenge that bridges sustainability and policy analysis is how to value “intangibles”. We know that we like to preserve nature, prevent pollution, and let people have happy and healthy lives. But how do we take those things into account if we are doing a policy analysis? For a long time, they were just ignored but clever people have come up with methods to quantify them. People have often pushed back at this idea and have argued that any attempt to “quantify” the value of life or clean air is missing the entire point. So we are left with something of a dilemma: if we don’t quantify these “intangibles” then they won’t be counted in our analyses. But if we do try to quantify them, we run into all sorts of issues.
Questions to think about: What is the “value of a statistical life” and how should we think about it? Is it ethical to use a dollar value for VSL? How should we estimate VSL? Should we target decisions towards activities that reduce accidental deaths at lowest overall cost, or do the features of the risk matter? What do you think about “contingent valuation” as a concept? Is it a good idea? Ethical? If it isn’t ethical, are there ways we can make it more ethical to use? How should we value ecosystems and other “natural” goods? Are there some things that should just be left unquantified?
6. Goulder and Parry, “Instrument Choice in Environmental Policy” – This reading is about emissions control policies, but is a good general discussion of how to regulate in favor of non-market social goods. Clean air is probably the most well-studied example of non-market goods, but the concepts here could easily be expanded to other social goods that aren’t or cannot be traded in a market. It gives a succinct summary of many different regulatory approaches that push society towards more socially beneficial technologies and decisions.
Questions to think about: Do you have instruments here that you prefer generally? How should one choose between instruments? Looking at specific non-market goods (of your choice), which of these makes sense? Should we be confined to one or two of these in each application or does it make sense to apply different tools at the same time?
Week 1 Assignment (1-2 pages, single spaced)
The readings in the first week describe a rational, analytical approach to evaluating decisions, policies, or other changes (there are different tools and methods discussed, but they all fall under a perspective that is rational, quantitative, and based on the idea of utility maximization). In this first essay, write 1-2 pages describing what you see as the strengths and weaknesses of this analytical perspective. This may include theoretical elements (like how ethical the approach is) or practical elements (like whether the approach can be applied to real-life questions).
Other questions to consider (but are not required in the essay): Is this analytical perspective better than a purely political process for making decisions? How can this perspective be brought into government decision making? In your view, are these types of analysis worth doing? Are they always worth doing, or are there certain topics where they make the most sense? Are there situations where we don’t want or need these tools to help us make decisions? In the end, governments and organizations need to make decisions and take action – how should we make those decisions?