Hi, I'm Bryan.

I have no idea what I am doing.

07 Sep 2020

Experimental Policy

The current political climate has seemingly been designed to, above all else, promote engagement and categorization. Sides are picked, and you are either with us or against us. The full-throated standard bearers closest to our political elites make themselves hoarse with endorsement and defense of the persons to which they’ve attached their politcal fates. People have coat tails, and it’s easier to ride on someone else’s than make your own and drag others along.

With this in mind policy frequently becomes an all-or-nothing affair. Any policy quibble, no matter how small, is potential ammunition in this political war zone. Most policy proposals are lambasted as antithetical to freedom, a trampling of rights, and a distortion of the founder’s vision of America. Facts matter very little and outright lies are common place, and presented without hesitation or embarassment.

We can talk about specifics in all of this, and in due course I think I will. Today though, I want to talk about the value of experimentation.

In my job, we plan, predict, and experiment. As a software developer building high-performance file transfer and storage systems for the cloud, I am faced with a problem: the systems are too complex, too opaque, simply too byzantine for me to fully understand. Perfect knowledge is possible, but impractical. As a result, we don’t bother. It’s far more expedient to develop and refine models, mental or otherwise, that predict the behavior of our systems, and then to test those models. To experiment. With this mentality we’ve made great progress on any number of topics in computing. Experimentation and refinement were the key.

In our politics, we don’t allow experimentation. We have, in the United States, three branches of government with the explicit duty in combination to propose, debate, refine, enact, interpret and enforce legislation to improve the lives of the people that the government is meant to serve. A vast machinery exists to execute our legislative decrees, and yet we rarely use this mechanism for experimentation. We’re so fervent in our belief that any policy proposal that we oppose will lead to immediate ruin that we oppose completely measures whose goals are to improve our station and lot in life.

It couldn’t possibly work, those in opposition say, and we shouldn’t try it, it’ll be disaster!

I can’t fathom why this is. Take healthcare and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The central premise of this legislation was that, in a country where health care is funded via private health insurance policies, the penetration rate of those policies must reach a sufficiently high enough percentage of the population to ensure lower cost and increased service coverage. This premise seemingly drove everything else in the legislation.

The heart-wrenching screams from the opposition would have had you believe that the ACA was going to destroy everything American about America. In truth, it would require that the haves give up some of what they have so that the have nots can have some of what they don’t. The so-called “Cadillac Tax” provision is a perfect example of this, and I believe led directly to a reduction in the health care benefits I receive through my employer.

While I wish my health insurance benefits had not been reduced, I would be a liar of the highest order if I said I was injured by the reduction. Oh yes, now it’s more complicated, and oh yes, now I’ve got more paperwork to deal with, and oh yes, now it costs me a bit more here and there, but I can afford these things. I see it as a simple and patriotic service to my country and my fellow citizen to lose these benefits in order to promote the greater welfare. It costs me, on balance, very little, and I gain a society where the less privileged have a better chance at gaining access to quality health care without risking their already likely precarious financial future.

What if the legislation is built atop a faulty foundation of assumptions and truths? Perhaps the precepts of the legislation are all wrong though. Perhaps the actuary that scoured the legislation got the math incorrect. Maybe the models predicting human behavior were wrong. Maybe the idea that the government requires you buy something is in fact heinous - although to that I must remind people who drive that they are required to carry auto-insurance, so the government mandating you purchase something from private industry is well trod ground.

Perhaps all of the above is true. Fine. Where then is the experimentation?

If policy proposals by the majority are as divisive as the minority would imply, why do we not test the thing? Laws are made, and laws can be unmade. In the affordable care act, a theory was proposed on human behavior, a result predicted, a solution to a problem of public health and welfare expected. We had a test - enact the law and evaluate the results. Instead, we enacted a law, and half the legislators used that law as a whip to flagellate their political opponents, setting upon dissassembling the law before it had an opportunity to fail on its merits.

All of our acts and functions, in our personal and professional lives, should be considered carefully and regularly to assess their performance. The same is true of our laws and regulations. Controversial policies for which there are reasoned objections could be attached to expiration windows that render them innefectual within a specific time frame. The fruits of the thing can then be assessed in real terms, and the models that describe our systems refined.

Experimentation and study are the heart of the thing. There is this notion that that which is done is impossible to undo that seems to pervade our legislative bodies, but this is ridiculous on its face. The legislature has but one central purpose, the drafting and passing of legislation. The whole machinery of their consitution is shaped for the execution of this task. Why then can they not undo that which is done, when it becomes plain that a given piece of legislation is irretrievably broken?

The answer, I fear, is that our policy making bodies are filled with those more interested in power than policy. Our lawmakers seem more interested in winning some collection of tokens over their rivals than solving actual problems. It doesn’t seem to matter what the problem is, the solution must be always be in opposition to the “others”. This is the crux of the thing I think, this fascination with side-taking.

Our policy makers would rather wield opposition to secure for themselves additional power than to refine solutions to difficult problems.

We might dismiss this as being a problem as old as the republic. Political maneuvering is not new. What is new is the seeming impossibility of compromise, that leads to stoneforms of positions and obstruction. We need a spirit of legislative experimentation in this country, we need policy makers that are will to try things, and we need legislative frameworks that support the repeal of failed acts. We need to embrace the strategy of attempt and refinement.

We need to hold accountable legislators that plainly lie about objective facts related to legislation by voting them out, regardless of party. If a person says a thing is purple when it is plainly green, and when a person says this because they want to manipulate you into giving them more power, that person does not deserve your vote. And yet time and time again we allow our politicians to do just this to us.

Opinions can differ on complex topics, and not all things are knowable. Proceeding with perfect knowledge is impossible. What we can do, though, is experiment, test, measure, and refine. We do this in industry, and we can do it in government. It requires that our policy makers are willing to compromise to put a theory to the test, and it requires that voters expel from our legislative bodies any member of any party that would oppose even experimentation. Progress on problems is the goal, not winning political scores.