Missing in Action Ought Not To Be Missing in Action

Missing in Action is the name of the excellent book on public policy written by Pranay Kotasthane and Raghu Sanjaylal Jaitley. I had reviewed it earlier this year, and my recommendation that you read the book is even more forceful now than it was in January.

Why? What has changed between now and January 2023?

Well, lots of things, as is usually the case with the passage of time. But as regards this book, what changed was that I got to put parts of the book through a most stringent test: I used it as a textbook in a course on public policy. And not just any course on public policy – this was a course taught to 13-15 year olds.

It’s truly special, this cohort. They are young enough to not have their curiousity trampled upon by higher education, and old enough to be able to grasp ideas and concepts fairly quickly. Better still, they are old enough to draw parallels between what they’re learning and what they already know. And best of all, they do not hesitate to ask basic questions that adults would be embarrassed to ask.

“Wait, that makes no sense”, was a sentence I heard very often while teaching these students, and I reveled in how it was said without shame, worry or pretense. It simply was what it was: an admission that what had been heard did not make any sense, with an implicit demand to explain further.

And so for teaching these students, a musty old textbook full of diagrams, definitions and pompous declarations would make no sense. It would have to be a book that was rigorous in terms of its understanding, thorough in terms of its explanations, and light in terms of its treatment. And as I’ve explained in my review, this book does a very good job on all counts.

One reason it does so is because the book is very clear about what it is not. As they say in their introduction to the book, the authors are clear that this is not an academic work, not is it a work of journalism.

The book has, instead, stories. And in order to make sense of these stories, the authors make liberal (if you’ll forgive the pun) use of public policy frameworks. We learn about public policy, in other words, by looking at the world and by wondering why it seems to make no sense. In each chapter, the authors ride unfailingly to the rescue, armed only with their obviously wide reading and their deep expertise in public policy. One of my students made the observation that their “secret superpower” was sarcasm, and I wholeheartedly agree.

But having taught the course, I came away with a renewed conviction that public policy should be taught to as many people as possible, and at as early an age as possible.

Why as many people as possible? That’s an easy one to answer, and the authors of the book have themselves provided an answer to this question. It is because an India familiar with public policy will likely have three important features:

  1. Our governments are likely to be more accountable, since their policies will be better scrutinized than before
  2. We ourselves will be able to sharpen our demands from our governments
  3. A better understanding of public policy will raise the level of public discourse

The cynic in me will not hold his breath for the first two, and is inclined to burst into laughter as regards the third. But even he will admit that an India that is more familiar with public policy certainly won’t make things worse. And these days, I’ll settle for that.

And why at as early an age as possible? Because I spent the better part of a day walking my students through the eight ‘principles’ of public policy, and am convinced that my students are better equipped to make sense of the world around them.

Note that I said “are better equipped to”, and not “are now able to”. I don’t think most adults are able to make sense of all that is around them, in part because of our own biases, limitations and limited understanding. But also because the world around is both more complicated and grows ever more so with every passing year.

But if a book, and eight principles within a book, can help us become aware of our biases, limitations and limited understanding – and if the basic framework of public policy can make the world seem a little less complicated – well then, it is probably worth it. No?

So just these eight principles. That’d be my wish when it comes to the teaching of public policy to folks currently studying in school. And if, for having learnt these eight principles, they decide to venture forth in search of new adventures in the realm of public policy, well then. Kya hi baat hai.

Or if I could be allowed to borrow a phrase from Pranay: Mogambo khush hua.

Speaking of borrowing from Pranay, these are the eight principles:

  1. Unlearn what you know, and begin your analysis with a clean slate
  2. Good intentions do not guarantee good policies
  3. Sure India’s implementation of policies isn’t great, but sometimes the policies themselves aren’t great either
  4. Change is permanent
  5. There’s no public policy without economics. Other disciplines matter – a lot – but at the heart of public policy lies economic theory.
  6. There’s no escaping politics.
  7. There’s no good or bad policy; only better or worse outcomes
  8. One policy should target only one objective

I hope you’re curious about what each of these mean, and I hope that this curiosity translates into you buying the book and reading it. If you like, you can move on from this blogpost to this podcast, and then on to the book.

Especially if you happen to be in school. Please, pretty please, do read the book. And especially if you are in school, please feel free to email me with any questions you may have about what you find in the book.

I’m already missing being told “Wait, that makes no sense”, you see.