The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
Last night, at one of those ubiquitous Washington cocktail receptions, I ran into an old friend who, for more than two decades, has been a policy analyst at a federal agency. Her hair-raising story, familiar to many inside the Beltway, is worth retelling as a new president prepares to take office.
My friend runs a modest research shop within the bowels of a huge agency. Her job, to oversimplify a bit, is to take a hard look at billions of dollars of federal programs to determine what works and what doesn't.
This sort of thing happens without a second thought in successful businesses. It also happens routinely in the military, where after-action reports are critical to learning from past successes and failures. It also occurs in medicine, though not often enough.
But in recent years, the federal government has developed an absolute aversion to data. My friend's office had its budget slashed by more than 80 percent over the past eight years. It was largely barred from hiring outside contractors even as its internal staff was cut. The political appointee in overall charge made it very clear: Studies that reflected poorly on White House initiatives would not be tolerated. So, the predictable bureaucratic response was to not do them at all.
This disrespect for data has infected much of government—and lately has included science as well as economics. President Bush took this phobia of facts to new heights. But before Democratic partisans leap to criticize him, remember that the Clinton Administration was no fan of numbers-gathering either.
The problem starts with cuts at places such as the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which saw its budget cut by 5 percent this year. Without the baseline data those agencies collect, much other analysis is impossible.
In the tax policy world, the Treasury Dept. has followed this know-nothing trend. Experienced economists have fled the building in droves. Research is not done or, if it reaches the “wrong” conclusions, results are suppressed. Data on the impact of tax law changes often lag by two or three years. One reason TPC has thrived is that Treasury has abandoned so much of its traditional analytic role.
The result, of course, is that government flies blind. Major policy decisions are made without any sense of the real-world consequences. “It sounds like a good idea” is no way to make policy. The irony, of course, is that the same government that is demanding rigorous analysis of comparative effectiveness in medical treatment won't put its own decisions to such a rigorous test.
The lesson is simple: Good information matters. Let's hope President Obama shows more respect for that basic rule of good management than his predecessor has.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.