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Published: Wednesday, 5/5/2010

The limits of policy


IN 1950, Swedes lived an average of 2.6 years longer than Americans. Over the next half-century, Sweden built a large welfare state with a national health service, while the U.S. did not. The result? Swedes now live 2.7 years longer.

Huge policy differences, small outcome differences.

This isn't to say that policy choices are meaningless. But we should be realistic about them. Last week, the American Human Development Project came out with its survey of life in America called "A Century Apart." As you'd expect, ethnicity correlates to huge differences in how people live. Fifty percent of Asian-American adults have a college degree, compared with 31 percent of whites, 17 percent of African-Americans, and 13 percent of Hispanics.

The region you live in also makes a gigantic difference in how you will live. There are certain high-trust regions where highly educated people congregate, producing positive feedback loops of good culture and good human-capital programs. This mostly happens in the northeastern states. There are other regions with low social trust, low education levels, and negative feedback loops. This mostly happens in southern states.

If you combine the influence of ethnicity and region, you get astounding lifestyle gaps; then it is hard for policy makers to use money to directly alter them.

In her book, What Money Can't Buy, Susan Mayer calculated what would happen if you could double the income of the poorest Americans. The results would be small. So we should be aware of how policy fits into the larger scheme of cultural and social influences. Bad policy can decimate the social fabric, but good policy can modestly improve it.

The first rule of policy-making should be: Don't make policy that will destroy social bonds. If you take tribes of people, exile them from their homelands, and ship them to strange lands, you're going to produce bad outcomes for generations.

Second, set basic security. If government can establish basic economic and physical security, people may create a culture of achievement - if you're lucky.

Third, try to use policy to strengthen relationships. The best policies, such as good preschool and military service, fortify emotional bonds.

Finally, we should probably calm down about politics. Most of the proposals we argue about will have only marginal effects on how we live, especially compared with the ethnic, regional, and social differences that we so studiously ignore.

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.

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