If you’re between the age of 18-24, and aspire to work in the field of public policy, how should you prepare for such a career? Outside of the academic requirements and the network that you will build, reading about what public policy experts have done when on the “front-lines” is a useful exercise.
In today’s blogpost, I aim to get you started on this journey by referring to a book, an interview and an article.
The book? To Move the World, JFK’s Quest for Peace.
The book is about the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the crisis itself, its succesful resolution, and the aftermath. It is a short book, and well worth your time if you are an aspiring public policy student.
At the very start of the ExComm process, Kennedy made the basic decision—one that was never second-guessed within the group—that the Soviet weapons must go. Either the weapons would be removed peacefully by the Soviets themselves, or they would become the cause of war.Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 529)
Decide upon a goal. In this case, the goal was to get the Soviet weapons to go. Professor Sachs lays out the consultations that led to this goal being chosen in subsequent pages. But that is step 1. Without a clear goal, the rest of the process is meaningless.
Be crystal clear about the “What are we trying to do here?” question, first and foremost.
That brings you to step 2. And once step 1 has either been decided, don’t make your arguments from now on about step 1. The time for that is now gone. Step 2 is about clear-eyed assessments about what maximizes your chances of getting step 1 done.
The ExComm held divergent views on the substantive effect of the missiles on the East-West military balance. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara held that the missiles had zero net effect, given that the Soviets had intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could target the United States from Soviet territory anyway. The military brass felt otherwise, that Soviet missiles just off the U.S. coast would substantially enhance Soviet military power, especially since the Soviet strategic forces at that point depended overwhelmingly on bombers with a long and difficult flight path to the United States. All agreed, however, that the missiles must go.Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 548)
“How should we go about getting to our goal?” is the difficult, contentious issue. This is where your expertise is called upon as a public policy expert.
This forced a thorough review of options, and it allowed some time for communication between Kennedy and Khrushchev, albeit through a laborious and confused process of letters, public pronouncements, telegrams, and messengers. It gave time for heated emotions—panic, fear, and desire to lash out at the adversary—to be kept in check so that reason could be invoked. “Slow” rational thinking was given time to dominate the “quick” emotional thinking.Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 558)
It sounds peaceful and professional – “a thorough review of options”. But this is where you have to:
- Really, really know your subject, or admit that you don’t and get out of the way.
- Have a strong point of view on the basis of your expertise, and defend it passionately. Arguing at this stage isn’t just fine, it is expected.
- The really, really difficult bit: figure out where your argument is weak, and listen to folks on the other side of this issue. What are they saying that is worth including in your recommendation? What are they saying that makes you want to refine/exclude parts of your proposal? Can a happy medium emerge? Remember, The Truth Always Lies Somewhere In The Middle.
Even if you think the article is mostly fluff, I found this excerpt relevant for this blogpost:
Before making up his mind, the president demands hours of detail-laden debate from scores of policy experts, taking everyone around him on what some in the West Wing refer to as his Socratic “journey” before arriving at a conclusion.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/14/us/politics/joe-biden-policy-decisions.html
Those trips are often difficult for his advisers, who are peppered with sometimes obscure questions. Avoiding Mr. Biden’s ire during one of his decision-making seminars means not only going beyond the vague talking points that he will reject, but also steering clear of responses laced with acronyms or too much policy minutiae, which will prompt an outburst of frustration, often laced with profanity.
And finally, for those of you who are hoping to get into public policy and are currently studying economics:
I would like economists to be working with engineers, to be working with public health, to be working with the medical professionals so that we’re actually working on the real systems of our time and adding our pieces to that, understanding and studying that so that we have an answer to robotics, not a pure theoretical model, which is nice and fun, but something that can be helpful.https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/jeffrey-sachs/
The point isn’t to build a theoretically correct model. The point is to build a model that maximizes the chances of getting to the goal we established in step 1: What are we trying to do here?
Or put another way, if you have to choose between being theoretically correct and doing whatever it takes to achieve step 1, choose the latter. If I had to choose between the two, that is what I would do.
There’s tons of other books, papers, blogs and newsletters to read on this topic, of course. If you asked me to pick just one, make it Anticipating the Unanticipated. Spend the summer reading every single one of their posts and taking (and then publishing!) notes. Better, if you ask me, than any other way to learn.
[Thank you to all those who reached out to check if I was ok. It means a lot. There’s been a covid death in the family, and a covid scare. We’re getting back to a semblance of a routine, but it has been tough and slow going. Please, stay safe, all. And again, thank you for your wishes.]
One thought on “So You Want to Work in Public Policy…”
[…] while ago, I wrote a post for students who want to work in the field of public policy. Alex Tabbarok’s work this past year is a great example of what that advice might look like […]