Why I quit public policy

This is yet another of those posts that elaborates something I’ve put on twitter.

I remember getting interested in public policy sometime in 2005. I think that was around the time when I stopped solely talking about gossip (and random “life issues”) on this blog, and started commenting about random “issues” here.

That was also the time when Madman Aadisht introduced me to his blog circle that he called the “libertarian cartel”. Reading blogposts by this cartel (included the likes of Ravikiran Rao, Amit Varma, Gaurav Sabnis (who was once a libertarian), Nitin Pai, etc.), I was hooked. I too wanted in on this “libertarian cartel”.

Soon enough, I started work and did one project that involved the study of some economic reforms. I soon quit that job but wrote about this, and other issues. I started getting into the “econ blogosphere”. Between the libertarian cartel, the opinion pages of the Business Standard (back when TN Ninan was the editor) and “econ blogs” (the likes of Marginal Revolution and EconLog), I got deeply interested in “policy issues”. And I thought I wanted to do public policy.

Of course, what public policy pays is nothing comparable to what post-MBA jobs pay, so I never explored it seriously as a career. I kept moving from one highly paid job to another, though I kept writing about “policy issues” on this blog, and then on Twitter (when I opened an account there in 2008). I even wrote on the “Indian Economy Blog”. And while the libertarian cartel never admitted me as a member, when they did form a mailing list, I got invited to join it soon enough (thanks to Aadisht once again).

“Policy work”, or “policy blogging” (which might be a more accurate term), in the late noughties was enjoyable because most people (at least those I bothered to read) were issue driven. So you had the aforementioned libertarians who analysed issues through a libertarian lens. You had leftists like the Jagadguru Krish and “Jihvaa”.  You had right wingers like SandeepWeb. Each class largely evaluated each issue based on their own philosophies, and commented about them. People avoided being partisan.

And so, in 2011, when I quit full time employment and decided to lead a portfolio life, I decided that public policy should be part of my portfolio. And the Takshashila Institution was kind enough to appoint me as its “resident quant” (for the most part, there were no formal responsibilities for the role and I wasn’t paid. However, we mutually enjoyed it, I would like to think).

That was a fantastic opportunity. I didn’t have to commit that much time, but got the optionality to participate in a large number of fairly interesting discussions with fairly interesting people. I did some work here and there, doing some research and teaching and course designing and lecturing, and it was most enjoyable. More enjoyable, of course, was the set of people I met through this assignment.

Somewhere down the line, maybe in 2015 or 2016 (or maybe even earlier), things changed. Basically policy became partisan. Out went the libertarians and totalitarians and right wingers and left wingers. In came the “Congressis” and “bhakts”, and republicans and democrats.

Output of policy analysis everywhere, except in academic journals (which I can’t comment on since I don’t bother reading them), became a function of the author’s political preferences. One year, an author might be favourable to the BJP and everything he/she wrote would nicely tally with the BJP’s view of the world. And then maybe the author would change political preferences, and there was a 180 degree turn on most issues!

On twitter, on mainstream media, on blogs, even on Instagram – “policy analysis” became rather predictable. Once you knew a person’s political preferences and leanings, it became clear what their view on any topic would be – it was identical to the view of their chosen party at that point in time. This partisanship meant there was “no information content” in any of this writing.

And that is how I started getting disillusioned. And the disillusionment grew over time, until a point when I started actively avoiding policy discussions (I’ve even muted the word “policy” on twitter).

I’m happy living my life, and doing my work, and earning my money, and paying my taxes. In the spirit of 2020, I’ll “leave public policy to the experts”.

One axis politics

Historically, political leanings have ben described on two dimensions – economic freedom and social freedom. In the American scenario, the Republican Party has historically been supportive of economic freedom and restrictive of social freedom. The Democratic Party has been liberal on social freedom but illiberal on the economic freedom front.

While other major Western democracies occupying these two opposite quadrants, the other two quadrants have been largely empty. The libertarians occupy the “free on both fronts” quadrant, but nowhere is there a party to represent them – giving people freedom on all fronts means lesser power for the government and no politician wants that. And being restrictive of both kinds of freedom means people won’t vote for you – at least this was the way historically.

Of course things have been different in India. While we did have a series of governments between 1991 and 2004 that were reasonably economically liberal (“liberalisation” happened in this time period), all Indian political parties are required to swear by socialism, and they swear by it in spirit as well. So the difference on the economic freedom front between different Indian parties is marginal (in 2014, many of us thought the BJP might be supportive of economic freedom, given its record in the 1999-2004 period. Instead, it gave us demonetisation).

So in effect, in India we have a one-axis democracy, where parties try to differentiate themselves on one axis, which is the kind of social freedom they allow. Even there, it is not so much of an axis, but different ways in which they control social freedoms.

The BJP doesn’t want you to eat beef. The AAP doesn’t want recorded music in restaurants. The Congress and JDS don’t want live music in restaurants. The BJP puts cow welfare over human welfare. The Congress enacts and supports laws that allow suppression of Muslim women (by Muslim men). Many parties want to ban liquor, despite it having been repeatedly shown that such bans don’t work. No party wants to legalise marijuana, despite our rich tradition in the substance (heck, its scientific name is Cannabis indica). And we all seem to vote based on which of these social freedoms are more precious to us than others – economic freedom is a battle already lost.

In any case, it seems like other countries are also moving towards one axis democracy.  A chart posted on Twitter today describes results from a survey in the US on voters’ attitudes towards social and economic freedoms, and how they voted in the 2016 presidential elections (which Donald Trump famously won).

Source: https://www.voterstudygroup.org/publications/2016-elections/political-divisions-in-2016-and-beyond

A large part of America seems to lie in the left half of the economic freedom spectrum. Yes, the republican voters are still more towards the centre than the democratic voter, but the bigger separation here is on the social rather than the economic dimension. And the Trump administration has been pursuing several policies cutting economic freedoms, such as tearing up trade deals and imposing tariffs.

So it seems like the world is following India in terms of enacting one axis politics – where voters vote more on the social dimension rather than the economic dimension. Then again, I don’t expect this to last – with parties moving left economically, soon you can expect economic freedoms to be crushed to the extent that it becomes advantageous for a party to signal economically right and still get votes.

PS: We don’t need to limit ourselves to two dimensions.  A few years back, Nitin Pai had proposed the Niti Mandala which has three dimensions.

Source: http://acorn.nationalinterest.in/2012/03/03/nitimandala-the-indian-political-spectrum/