Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Joshua Gans on Henry and the academics

Gans is at present in the US and following the debate back home:

You know, you have to believe that Ken Henry really doesn’t understand academics at all when he publicly says stuff like this:

“Whenever an idea is ventured publicly by a person, whether that person is a policy advisor or whether it’s a government minister, there’s at least a handful of academics who will contest it,” he said. “I’ve seen it on both sides of politics – this is not a partisan comment at all – but for governments, government ministers who are seeking to get ideas legislated – it is unbelievably frustrating, incredibly frustrating.”

“It is a great strength of economics as a discipline. It is one of the things that as a young person I found very attractive about the study of economics, this contest of ideas. But I think there are occasions on which economists might, at least for a period, put down their weapons and join a consensus”…

Warwick McKibbon, appropriately sums up the position of we academics:

“I have enormous respect for Ken Henry, but he can’t believe that you should have consensus because it is better to have bad policy that everyone agrees with than eventually get god policy that will work.”

He goes on:

"If the government won’t engage you behind closed doors then an academic has no other choice than to express their opinion in the public interest in public for the public to assess."

Warwick, like many, have opposed the Government strongly on many policies. And in so doing, he has added to the debate and in some cases there is arguably success in getting sense put in place. It is tough thing to do and it frustrates me to see it so derided.

But I want to add a few things here. First, let me tell you, praising the Government is as thankless a task as critiquing it...
I was someone who fell behind the Government and wanted to get the ETS done and said so publicly in the face of criticism myself. I was someone who fell behind the Government and argued that we should pay attention to the evidence on FuelWatch and give it a go. And I was someone who, after years of critiquing their broadband policy, praised them when they moved in the right direction. And was I ever able to be brought in to help improve these policies (something they could clearly use)? No. Whenever I tried I was given the clear message that there are insiders and there are outsiders.

Warwick is actually one of the insiders. I write blogs and occasionally newspaper pieces only to find the Government abandoning those policies that I supported for political and expedient reasons rather than on the basis of evidence. I find myself often wondering these days if it is really worth the effort to write long submissions to Parliamentary inquiries, conduct research in policy-relevant areas and stick my neck out at all only to wake up and find that we are all really just an annoyance anyway.

Second, this is isn’t a problem with just this Government. They are all like this. The Howard Government in the face of the clearest evidence that it was poor policy went ahead with the introduction and then increments to the baby bonus despite the strain that put on maternity hospitals. Where was Treasury then? How could it be that the mistake was made and then repeated two times with ample time and options to get around it? And I will continue to harp on me and fortunately I get to write textbooks so that our students can see what a broken evidence-based policy system looks like.

In the US, I can see that things are very different. The Government consults regularly with outsiders and genuinely solicits advice. I have seen it happen, not just here at Harvard but all over the place. In Australia, the aura is one of distance. Now I am not saying that Ken Henry or anyone else has to engage with me personally. Just being a professor commands no such right. But I would like to see him and the Government actually engage with some outsiders regularly rather than project the image of distance. But regardless, there is surely no right to consensus until the Government has earned it. They have far to go. If asked, I’ll gladly help. Otherwise, I speak my mind from the sidelines."

Related Posts

. "Put down your weapons" - Ken Henry

. McKibbin: "He can't believe it's better to have a bad policy that everyone agrees with than a good one"

. The impressive Warwick McKibbin