Obama’s Evidence-Based Public Policy: Where’s the Beef?

Cliff Winston over at the Brookings Institution has an excellent commentary critiquing the Obama Administration’s empty promise of evidence-based public policy.

Winston starts out:

Before taking office, President Barack Obama and his team said they would take a rigorous, “evidence-based” approach to public policy. But the president and Congress are whitewashing scholarly policy research or simply ignoring it across the economic spectrum – in public expenditures, industrial policy, health-care reform and regulation of the auto and financial industries.

Public-highway and airport expenditures are extremely wasteful because funds are broadly distributed across the country, often to locales with little traffic, instead of being targeted to metropolitan areas with the greatest highway and airport congestion.

I weigh in on the same topic in the most recent issue (31 December) of National Review in an article titled “Evidence-Based Pretense.” It’s important to keep in mind that Obama’s call for “evidence-based” public policy fits squarely into the tradition and pretense of progressive politics:

The notion of “evidence-based public policy” has guided progressive thought since the 19th century, and even Republicans now embrace it. To be sure, evidence is important and sometimes compelling. But it is rarely decisive in the world of economic and social policy, and what is commonly presented as “evidence” is more often pretense: Savvy politicians invoke data to mask the fact that their initiatives are driven, not by evidence, but by ideology.

Like Winston, I find the stimulus package is a good example, but more for the tactics used that the misguided funding it implies:

But after using the promise of “evidence based” economic policies to enact the ARRA, the administration ducked accountability for its initiative. Its forecasts at the time the package was passed predicted the unemployment rate would peak at 8 percent in late 2009 and then fall to 7 percent by the end of 2010. In a May 2009 briefing with an on-background “senior administration official,” a journalist asked whether the administration still hoped to meet this target. The official responded that the prediction no longer counted because “the baseline deteriorated between when we did our first report in January and over the first couple of months of the year.” But — fear not — the real goal, to create or save 3.5 million jobs, was still attainable. So the pressure was on to report progress in the creation and retention of jobs, and this may have contributed to the endless inaccuracies in the White House’s claims.

This administration’s bait-and-switch, and the subsequent exaggerations of the ARRA’s impact, was more than a case of government error in an important prediction. It was a clear example of the problems with “evidence-based public policy” — not to mention a good reason to doubt the same official’s promise that the government would “monitor this thing” by “doing another [macroeconomic] forecast” to “make sure we’re doing what we need to do to put the economy back to the track we want to be on.”