random responses: public policy critique [one]

A) Summary

(1) Frank Fischer

Human beings exist in the world in which they find themselves both as physical beings and social phenomena. A distinction between these two spheres is a critical observation that allows postempiricist discursive to pursue an interpretative understanding of reality. Because this social reality is a construct, and as a result open to interpretation, reconstruction and ultimately change, empirical studies and the empiricist who conduct them must “carefully connect or relate empirical findings to the social understandings of those under investigation.” A failure to appreciate that a certain effect may have had separate and distinct points of origin (or causes), and that actively and subjectively substituting our own interpretation, as empiricists and observers, for the actual interpretations (whatever they may have been at the time) of the actor or agent who caused the effect, would be to seriously misunderstand the complexity of the cause-and-effect process.

Fischer goes on to assert, that “by treating the meanings of their findings as clear or evident, empiricist social groups assign to them [those being studied] in effect the social understanding of the dominant social groups.” However, Fischer does not choose to explore this deficiency by means of a causal explanation. In turn, his social meaning or social constructivism approach leads him to observe a further inconsistency, which maintains that “the crux of the problem…is how to establish and maintain a systematic relationship between social scientists’ second-order explanations and the everyday first-order explanations of the social actors under investigation.” Therefore a descriptive model that just describes effects or what is observed, using quantifiers chosen subjectively by observers, fails to take into consideration the aforementioned tendency.

For Fischer, an interpretive method, one that allows the agent doing the acting to provide the reasons behind their decision or particular choice, would prove to be a much more productive alternative. It is not surprising that Fischer follows this discussion with one that speaks of the importance of language and rhetoric in policy making, especially how what is being said as well as what is being omitted, “assumed, supposed or constructed,” all provide clues as to what the dominant social construct of the day may be at a particular point in time. Ambiguous language for Fischer is a means by which to appeal to a larger electoral base, a base that if one assumes that there are as many unique social constructs as there are voters, would be difficult to politically mobilize, without leaving enough room for those citizens to “read” themselves into. In addition, the use of media is seen as a “hyper-reality,” a fake reality that “dupes” subscribers into believing that this in fact is reality itself.

(2) Rochefort and Cobb

Although certain problems exist and are particularly serious, not all political actors attach the same level of attention to these problems, a phenomenon that can in part be explained by what is “arguably the most fundamental source of ‘non-rational’ political phenomena, namely, the intersubjective nature of social experience and its impact both on issue initiation and policy formulation.” Because social constructs are ubiquitous, public issues are also effectively “malleable.” As reality is constructed, the independent variables chosen by those doing the constructing to complete causal chains, differ from one construct to another and from one actor to another. Choosing one independent variable over another is a “process that always involves discretion and inconsistency,” according to Rochefort and Cobb. Furthermore, to better understand the process of problem definition, policymakers need to “focus on the effect [emphasis added] of problem definition on the policymaking process, including the reevaluation of previously accepted definitions.”

(3) Schneider and Ingram

Because public policy affects certain groups or individuals, it is absolutely crucial to study the social construction of target populations and the certain images and portrayals that are envisioned by those constructions. Schneider and Ingram understand social constructions as being “stereotypes about particular groups of people,” usually measured by a wide range of both positive and negative dimensions. Certain groups then, are portrayed as being either positive or negative and therefore, depending on which categories they are considered to fall under (advantaged, contenders, dependents or deviants), either receive benefits or burdens.

Furthermore, “benefits are expected to become oversubscribed to advantaged populations, whereas dependents and deviants will receive too little (become undersubscribed) beneficiary policy.” Schneider and Ingram do however make an important claim, that “policy directed solely to the benefit of powerful groups could become a major campaign liability.” Although they equate true empowerment and equality to an equal and positive treatment of all target populations in the social sphere, this is a normative ideal that may neither be neither possible nor desirable.

(4) Stone

Traditionally, the transformation of difficulties into problems is not seen a precarious process that is akin to some arbitrary methodology. Instead, this process follows a simple and coherent logic, one that firsts asks if human actions are “amenable to human intervention,” before going on to promote difficulties to problems. However, for Deborah Stone, the substances of the transformation of difficulties into political problems are simply causal ideas. She undertakes a discussion that seeks to “demonstrate that there is in fact a systematic process with fairly clear rules of the game by which political actors struggle to control interpretations and images of difficulties,” a task that does not pigeonhole causal theories into moral constraints of right or wrong. In fact, what she goes on to argue is that politics is “about fights about the possibility of control and the assignment of responsibility,” a struggle over which link in the causation chain to accept as being the source of the effect and therefore the true point of origin or “creator” of the problem or difficulty.

Causal politics then, is primarily concerned with “moving interpretations of a situation from the realm of accident to one of the three realms of control,” or the categories of “mechanical cause” (intended consequences but not willfully guided, or satisfying the actus reus requirement, but having no culpability or mens rea), “intentional cause” (intended and purposeful consequences) or “inadvertent cause” (having purposeful but unintended consequences). However, certain limits of the causal arguments do exist and are usually defined as questions that ask why certain groups or individuals who entertain a particular causal story constantly dominate their opponents, who struggle to assert a different narrative. The influence of media, who has visibility and access to such a medium, is often believed to influence the success of certain constructs over others. In addition, the institutions of law and science can, by virtue of their social privileges, “challenge or protect existing social orders,” in addition to providing legitimacy to certain groups to continue asserting their dominant causal ideas, while assigning blame or punishment to actors who contrast certain dominated causal constructs.

(5) Tversky and Kahneman

Tversky and Kahneman’s critique of normative choice models, for having deviated to such a widespread extent from actual observed (and empirically validated) behaviour, is a rather compelling account of the failures of axiomatic expected theory assumptions, that concludes by finding the normative and descriptive analyses of rationality to be irreconcilable.

By undertaking empirical studies that explain the difference between choice selection and the framing of choices, Tversky and Kahneman find that “choices involving gains (positively framed) are usually risk averse, while choices involving losses (negatively framed) are often risk seeking, except when the probability of winning or losing is small.” In addition, their value function, called loss aversion, maintains that “the response to losses is more [emphasis added] extreme than the response to gains,” suggesting that “the displeasure of losing a sum of money exceeds the pleasure of winning the same amount.” To further explicate the phenomenon of these “visual [or cognitive] illusions,” the importance of reference points when framing certain issues, especially as these issues may in turn be interpreted as being positive or negative, stands to have serious implications for public policy. In additional, the results of the studies carried out by Tversky and Kahneman “indicate that cancellation is actually obeyed in choices that make its application transparent [emphasis added].” Framing, therefore, either maintains or refutes the “empirical validity of [the theory of] cancellation.”

While some critics may end up suggesting that transparence is automatically built-in to market systems or that incentives correct this feature or illusion of human cognition, Tversky and Kahneman suggest that incentives “do not operate by magic,” and that the pragmatic considerations of unique and ad hoc situations may in fact make the “defence that people will learn to correct decisions” not particularly cogent.

B) Questions/Analysis

Fischer’s argument is centrally linked to Tversky and Kahneman in two ways. The choice human agents make is linked to the way in which their choice matrix was framed. Because a lack of transparency leads to different choices being made, either risk seeking or risk averse, an ex post facto empiricist observing those decisions, although led to believe that the cause chosen to explain that particular effect is logically deduced, may lead to an inconsistency between what actually provided the impetus for a certain choice to be made and what is empirically assumed to have been the cause. Language, rhetoric and symbol manipulations come to be viewed as policy tools that frame a particular social construct as interpreted by a given a politically invested group or individual.

Rochefort and Cobb’s problem definition dilemma, that of choosing problems arbitrarily and inconsistently, a process that is inconsistent with what may be salient or of proximate overall social importance, builds on Stone’s causal ideas interpretation of how politics and policy is framed and constructed. As basic economics outlines, resources, either material or political are scarce and in limited supply. The competition over who is to appropriate such resources is contested by actors who frame their narratives of legitimacy in terms of causal explanations that lay either lay blame or praise. One critique of Schneider and Ingram’s model of advantaged and disadvantaged groups is that it should be made explicit that the individuals or groups who fall under these categories are not forever locked in a state of oversubscribed or undersubscribed benefits or burdens. Given the fluid nature of social constructs, particular interests may find ways in which to influence and assert their particular social construct in ways that will overcome and possible dominate a given status-quo. Stone makes this clear in her article, further pushing the concept of causality into an abstract domain that is neither right nor wrong, in other words devoid of moral considerations. What is wrong and what is right then are corollaries of the dominant social construct of a particular point in time, a purely abstract understanding that may or may not sit well with certain individuals – this therefore allows the political institution at large to exist by constantly maintaining a degree of competitiveness between vested interests and adversaries.

However, the above is particularly worrisome when certain groups or social constructs are constantly being locked or priced out of the political marketplace. The findings of Tversky and Kahneman are of particular salience here. Because there exists a perversity of human cognition, or an “intuitive illusion,” policy can be framed by those who find themselves holding power as a result of entertaining a dominating social construct, in such ways that their competitors and their allies may be satisfied with certain concessions that may in fact prove to be, in their search for their own political dominance, counterproductive. This phenomenon therefore perpetuates, or at least has a propensity to perpetuate the domination of one social construct over another.

The framing of policy and policy issues in this light, especially when ambiguity and a lack of transparency is a pragmatic requirement for electoral efficiency, is extremely problematic in a democratic context that is constantly said to offer equal and fair opportunities to all. However, if Tversky and Kahneman’s empirical findings are in fact correct, the concept of loss aversion can be extrapolated so that the aforementioned can at least in part be explained. Why is it for example, that certain individuals accumulate so much garbage and junk in their garage without concern for the limited space available for this purpose, and when asked to either sell or throw out such goods, they typically respond by circumventing the question with the banality that they may, at some point in the future, find a need for such goods. The same can be said about capital accumulation. Hoarding is one way of interpreting this phenomenon. Tversky and Kahneman’s discovery then, if assumed to be true, is absolutely crucial in explaining these above human tendencies – whether this is an innate and “built-in” human condition, or an environmental consequence, being something of future debate.

Social groups that find themselves on the advantaged side of the coin receive benefits or “winnings,” for the purpose of this argument, that are valued more or less taken for granted in light of what would happen if these groups were disadvantaged and were oversubscribed with burdens, a situation that would lead them to consider such as losses. Because the difference between “winning” and “losing” is not a net neutral or zero-sum effect, those who lose end up undertaking “risk seeking” endeavours to try and correct what they perceive to be an “injustice.” However, perhaps what is even more problematic in terms of the virtue of maintaining social order and peace is what would happen if those who are constantly treated as advantaged and therefore on the “winning” side, would all of a sudden start to “lose.” As it has been argued by a few of the above authors, those who find themselves to be advantaged, have the political and material resources to counter policy or attacks that try and dismantle their dominant social positions.

As Tversky and Kahneman have already alluded to, markets are not particularly good at correcting the above (socially constructed) “inferiority complex.” Regulations may help rectify this inconsistency but are not always particularly effective from a pragmatic approach, as the uniqueness of ad hoc situations in politics and business, make it extremely difficult to offer any solutions that are more than just palliative remedies.


It is obvious then that in a world of limited resources, there will always be more contenders than beneficiaries. Particular social constructs fight to justify why one group should dominate another, by promoting and entertaining different causal explanations of particular events. Rhetoric, discourse and the narratives of such constructs, maintain the status quo, while perverse and illogical human pathologies exacerbate traditional virtues of democracy, market-driven capitalism and laissez-faire ideology. However, the debate of whether the social environment in which humans find themselves is cyclical or linear, is still very much a point of contention now, as it was hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago.

Propaganda Framing


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Filed under academia, collective action, corporate, corruption, critical, critical choice, democracy, economics, economy, fischer, government, ignorance, imperialism, philosophy, Policy, politics, public policy, questions, regulatioin, rochefort and cobb, schneider and ingram, school, stone, tversky and kahneman, university

One response to “random responses: public policy critique [one]

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