Wednesday 20 March 2013

The First Post

For some time, I've been thinking about starting a blog.  Not so much for other people's benefit as much as for my own sanity, to vent my thoughts on various policy issues.  A particular debate on Facebook reminded me that a blog would probably be a better forum for explaining what I think and why, and engaging in some kind of discussion.

The title of the blog comes from L. Susan Stebbing's book, first published in 1939.  She argues in favour of clarity of thought and argument, which includes a certain transparency and honesty along with logic and appropriate use of language.

I've been struck by the importance of this argument over the (relatively few) years I've been working on policy issues.

In the field of higher education, the debate around the reforms introduced by the Coalition Government was characterised by confusion and obfuscation* on all sides.  One of the Government's key motivations for changing the system was, as I understood it, that lending money to a student to spend on education can be classified differently from 'spending' on the Treasury's balance sheet.  This seemed to pass many commentators and academics by.  The Government wasn't up-front about this and seemed to prefer discussing student 'choice' and market ideology.  Academics also missed the point by claiming the humanities were 'losing' their subsidy.  In simple terms, I'd rather read William Cullerne Bown than Stefan Collini.

To take another example, in the field of drug treatment there's an ongoing debate about how much treatment services and the National Treatment Agency (NTA) should trumpet their value to government with reference to how much crime drug users commit (see the NTA's presentations on investing generally and crime specifically, and Chief Exec Paul Hayes' explanation here).  The question is: does justifying treatment in this way stigmatise service users, and is this a bargain worth making?  Really, many people making this argument think what justifies ensuring people have access to treatment is simply some kind of belief in common humanity.  The crime figures are a front to ensure this happens.  This is just one aspect of the huge confusion and obfuscation (again) that characterises debates about drug policy.  I'm not pretending that these sorts of trade-offs could be eliminated from practical politics, but I think a greater awareness of them (and discussion) would be helpful.

So, I think that clarity and logic should characterise policy debates, and I hope this blog will help in this, adding some insights and provocations.

There are two important caveats to this claim:

First, I don't think that humans are, should be, or can be, completely rational and logical.  (I've been reading John Gray and Michael Oakeshott lately.)

Second, even if a policy can be worked out that is rational and logical (evidence-based), this doesn't in itself mean it should be implemented.  (If you don't believe me, try a former White House advisor.)  There may be conflicting priorities, or values.

Recent debates around 'nudging' illustrate these points well, and something about this might well be my next post, but I think this is enough to be going on with for now!

Please let me know any thoughts you have on any posts, or comments more generally.  Also - follow me on Twitter, as I've just set up an account...

*I like this word because, like esoteric, I think of it as being (almost) performative - if you say 'obfuscate', it's a complicated-sounding word that actually somehow does what it means.

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