So You Want to Work in Public Policy…

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:

  1. Really, really know your subject, or admit that you don’t and get out of the way.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
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.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/14/us/politics/joe-biden-policy-decisions.html

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.]

RoW: Links for 1st Jan, 2020

Poland, five links to understand this country better.

  1. “The best way to maximize food production is to allow your farmers to go on owning their own land, encourage them to work together in genuinely free cooperatives, and when you have earned their good will, subject them to central state directives in return for guaranteed prices.”
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    A rather long write-up about Poland, and the original Polish miracle.
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  2. A Wikipedia article about the Communist years in Poland.
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  3. “What could not be foreseen in the autumn of 1989 was that Poland would become the star performer of all the economies that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet empire. Poland’s return to growth and fiscal discipline were powerful factors in the European Union agreeing to admit eight former communist countries in 2004.”
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    And then the second Polish miracle
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  4. “In reality, Poland’s boom is the result of positive external shocks. And if the ruling party — which is all but certain to win the country’s parliamentary election on October 13 — doesn’t push through serious reforms, the next downturn could seriously damage the country’s future.”
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    Current worries, of which there are a few.
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  5. An interview with Jefferey Sachs in 2015, about his role in Poland in 1989 (and onwards)
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    “I’ve been on many sides of many issues because they’re different in different contexts. For three years I said constantly that the key to reform is stabilization, liberalization, and privatization. That was a kind of mantra for three years in Eastern Europe, which I stand by. Then I went to Africa a few years later and I heard the IMF say: stabilization, liberalization, and privatization. And I said, “Are you kidding? They have AIDS and malaria, why don’t you talk about those things?”“But Professor Sachs, we’re just quoting you!”And I honestly did a double take. I said, “But in Warsaw, they had streets, electricity. They didn’t have malaria or an AIDS epidemic. They had fresh water, sanitation. Here it’s different. It’s about poverty, development, disease, hunger. They’re different issues.””