December 12, 2009

I heard a fly buzz

I have confessed before my fondness for Emily Dickinson, who was wild in a quiet kind of way. Here's one of her oddest, which is about death, one of her favorite themes.

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Was that odd or what? Good though!

December 11, 2009

Primeval soup

Lately Goat Rope is looking at the messy but interesting process of how public policy gets made (or doesn't). You'll also find links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Before any major new public policy is introduced to the public or placed on the agenda, it often begins as an idea developed by a peculiar human subspecies popularly known as policy wonks.

As John Kingdon put it in Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies,

Picture a community of specialists: researchers, congressional staffers, people in planning and evaluation offices and in budget offices, academics, interest group analysts. Ideas float around in such communities. Specialists have their conceptions, their vague notions of future directions, and their more specific proposals. They try out their ideas on each other by going to lunch, circulating papers, publishing articles, holding hearings, presenting testimony, and drafting and pushing legislative proposals. The process often does take years...and may be endless.

Kingdon compares the development of policy proposals to the biological process of natural selection:

Much as molecules floated around in what biologists call the "primeval soup" before life came into being, so ideas float around in these communities. Many ideas are possible, much as many molecules would be possible. Ideas become prominent and then fade. There is a long process of "softening up": ideas are floated, bills introduced, speeches made; proposals drafted, then amended in response to reaction and floated again. Ideas confront one another (much as molecules bumped into one another) and combine with one another in various ways. The "soup: changes not only through the appearance of wholly new elements, but even more by the recombination of previously existing elements. While many ideas float around in this policy primeval soup, the ones that last, as in a natural selection system, meet some criteria. Some ideas survive and prosper; some proposals are taken more seriously than others.

Believe it or not, ideas actually matter, although it's a long way from conception to implementation.

HEALTH CARE AND THE HOUSE. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says nice things about the Senate compromise on health care reform here.

JOBS AND THE FED. Here's Krugman on what the Federal Reserve can and probably won't do to boost employment.

THE HOLLY AND THE IVY AND MORE are discussed in the latest edition of Notes from Under the Fig Tree.

CHIMPS LIKE US dig music. They also like hugs.

TALKING COAL. Here's Ken Ward's Coal Tattoo post on public reaction to Senator Byrd's recent statement on the future of coal. And here's an item about coal and climate change legislation in the US Senate.


December 10, 2009

Agendas and alternatives

Little Edith Ann has a dirty mouth some days.

The theme at Goat Rope lately is how public policy is made, which is usually a lot messier in practice than it is in theory. You will also find links and comments about current events.

As discussed in earlier posts, in Policyland, there is a big difference between agendas and alternatives. Political or public policy agendas are the big picture priorities often laid out by political leaders such as presidential administrations or leading legislators. Alternatives involve the specific ways of dealing with or implementing the items on the agenda.

As John Kingdon put it in Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policy,

Apart from the set of subjects or problems that are on the agenda, a set of alternatives for governmental action is seriously considered by governmental officials and those closely associated with them.

Usually for any problem that makes its way onto a policy agenda--health care reform being one example--there are any number of ways of approaching the subject. Sticking with health care, alternatives might include single payer, a Medicare for all option to compete with private insurance (which would probably have been the easiest way to deal with it), or a mix of private insurance reforms with public ones like what seems to be on the table now.

While those who set the agenda are high profile public figures, often the specific policy alternatives are developed and floated offstage by experts, congressional or administrative staff, advocacy and interest groups. Usually, out of a wide range of possible alternatives, a select few are given serious attention.

Again, using health care as an example, President Obama made it an early priority and laid out a series of elements that he wanted it to contain, a priority shared by many in Congress. However, it was mostly left to Congress to develop specific legislation. In Congress, the specifics of the House and Senate versions were mostly developed offstage to meet the priorities set by congressional leadership.

People working at the grassroots have two challenges. One is to work as skillfully as possible to get specific problems on the agenda to start with. The second is to try to influence the alternatives that make it to the agenda.

I CAN'T BELIEVE IT, but I'm with Friedman on this one.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, a new poll shows that most Americans would support climate change legislation--and paying for it--if it increased jobs.

ONE MORE THING. Here's Wired Science on the psychology of climate change denial.

THE (LATEST) DEAL on the Senate's health care compromise is discussed here. For what it's worth, El Cabrero thinks the Medicare buy-in provision is a very big deal and could mean more in the long run than a weak public option.

KEEPING IT REAL. Here's a call for relevant social science research.


December 09, 2009

Problems and conditions

Seamus McGoogle has problems.

The theme at Goat Rope this stretch is how laws and policies get made, a process that Bismarck famously compared with sausage making.

One factor that seems to affect whether an issue will gain any traction in the policy arena has to do with how it is seen. As John Kingdon, author of Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies suggests, it makes a big different whether something is seen as a problem or a condition. In his words,

There is a difference between a condition and a problem. We put up with all manner of conditions every day: bad weather, unavoidable and untreatable illnesses, pestilence, poverty, fanaticism... Conditions become defined as problems when we come to believe that we should do something about them. Problems are not simply the conditions or external events themselves; there is also a perceptual, interpretive element.

To use climate change as an example, opponents of addressing either tend to deny it altogether or else to claim that it is not happening as a result of human activity, which would make it a condition rather than a problem.

Defining exactly what is and isn't a problem is a game with high political stakes. As Kingdon put it,

...Some are helped and others hurt, depending on how problems get defined. If things are going basically your way, for instance, you want to convince others that there are no problems out there.

Conversely, if things are not going your way, it makes sense to "define the problem in such a way as to place the burden of adjustment elsewhere, and to avoid changing one's own patterns."

From an advocacy standpoint, one of the most important tasks is to work to raise an issue from something seen as a condition to something seen as a political problem, one that has a solution. The unequal treatment of African Americans, for example, was seen as a condition in much of the country until the civil rights movement elevated to the level of a political problem.

But getting something to be seen as a problem on the public agenda is only part of the struggle. The next phase has to do with sorting out the specific alternatives, about which more later.

SPEAKING OF PROBLEMS, President Obama laid out his proposals for stimulating employment yesterday.

SPEAKING OF JOBS, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that plenty of those will be lost without additional aid to states.

HEALTH CARE. Wheeling and dealing galore is going on in the US Senate. Some good things on the table now are further expansions of Medicaid and a Medicare buy-in for workers 55 and over. The latter measure is one long proposed by WV Senator Jay Rockefeller and would help meet a huge need. Here's hoping both of those survive. Here's the latest as of late Tuesday night.

RANT ALL YOU WANT about those intercepted emails, but climate change isn't slowing down to fit the news cycle.

PERSONAL NOTE. El Cabrero is headed to DC the rest of the week for a conference on state fiscal policy. I'm such a geek that this is one of the high points of my year. The coolest part is that I plan on taking a train to get there. Trains are cool. Goat Rope should continue to appear as usual.

Also, this post was scheduled for publication late Tuesday. If anything bad happens between now and Wednesday, please accept condolences.


December 08, 2009

What's on the table

The theme at Goat Rope this week is public policy and how it gets made, a subject that I find to be often interesting and sometimes scary. In doing this, I'm drawing on some of the insights of John Kingdon, author of Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policy, a 1984 book that holds up pretty well.

The first step in getting any policy enacted into law is to get it on the agenda, which is basically what's on the political table for consideration at any given point in time. The agenda consists of all the things people in and around government pay attention to.

Agenda setting is important both for what it brings to the table and for what it keeps off it. For example in the Bush years, addressing climate change (and much else) just wasn't on it.

So who gets to do it? It probably won't be a surprise for readers to find that Kingdon's research found that presidents (with their staff and political appointments) generally get first whack at it, especially when they're still in the honeymoon phase or are acting in accord with a perceived public mood or addressing widely recognized problem. And, although his research was aimed at the federal level, it's safe to say that governors play a similar role at the state level.

Many other players--such as civil servants, congressional staffers, interest groups, researchers, academics, etc.--try with more or less success to influence the agenda, but these players often take the indirect route.

Congress (and state legislatures, by extension) are also major players in agenda setting. The power of Congress in agenda setting may wax while that of the president wanes. For example after the 1994 Republican congressional landslide, the new majority took the initiative in trying to set the agenda with its Contract With (On?) America.

Obviously, in all this elections matter. Using the Bush years as another example, the balance began to tilt away from the president after the 2006 elections, in which Democrats gained the majority. With the 2008 elections, much of the agenda setting lately has come from the Obama administration, although that may change in the future.

Major events--Pearl Harbor and 9/11, for example--can also alter the public agenda as well, as can grassroots pressure from below. One other factor that can do so is whether an issue as seen as a problem or a condition.

More about this to come.

UNEMPLOYMENT. Groups are urging Congress to act to extend unemployment and COBRA benefits about to expire.

SICK DAYS. Calling in is not an option for many low wage workers.

ONE WAY OR ANOTHER. The EPA is prepared to deal with climate change if Congress isn't.



December 07, 2009


Random animal picture.

Many Americans at one time or another were taught in public school a little bit about "how a bill becomes law." The textbook version leaves out a lot of the chaos, messiness and such. As a bit of a policy wonk, I find this kind of thing fascinating, but the subject really matters to lots of real people, with the current health care reform debate being a case in point.

I've found John Kingdon's 1984 book Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies to be as good an analysis of how these things happen as I've seen anywhere. According to Kingdon, public policy happens through a series of processes that includes:

*the setting of the agenda, which lays out the big picture list of subjects that are on the metaphorical table for action. Elected officials tend to play leading roles in this, but they aren't the only actors;

*the development of policy alternatives relevant to the agenda from which a choice is to be made. This is more detailed and specific and usually involves people less visible than presidents or elected officials, such as staffers, researchers, interest groups, advocates, policy wonks, etc.;

*a decision or choice among the alternatives that have been developed; and

*the actual implementation of the decision.

Agenda setting is very important because not much happens unless a policy option makes it there to start with. According to Kingdon, the agenda

is a list of subjects or problems to which governmental officials, and people outside of government closely associated with those officials, are paying some serious attention at any given time. Out of the set of all conceivable subjects or problems to which officials could be paying attention, they do in fact seriously attend to some rather than others. So the agenda-setting process narrows this set that actually becomes the focus of attention.

Just because an idea makes it to the agenda, there's no guarantee that it will happen: think about George W. Bush's 2005 effort to privatize Social Security. But sometimes it does happen, as was the case with President Obama's support of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The jury is still out on health care reform.

More on this to come.

IT'S (NOT) THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. Krugman's latest argues that addressing climate change won't bring about the apocalypse.

MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL. Here's ABC News on how national awareness of mountaintop removal mining has grown in the last several years.

LETTER TO THE EDITOR DEPARTMENT. The following letter appeared in the Nov. 29 edition of the Charleston Gazette:

A proposed strategy for winning in Afghanistan and then getting out: Negotiate a coal mining deal between Afghanistan and Massey Coal.

Massey would then level all the mountains, and there would be no place for al-Qaida and the Taliban to hide.


ON THIS DATE IN HISTORY, my late father said "Where the $*%# is Pearl Harbor?" and prepared to join the Navy.