Tuesday, 22 February 2011

From politics to policies

The current problems of the Portuguese economy highlight the desperate need for public debates on concrete policies: the country needs to discuss the positives and negatives of different alternatives, the relative urgency of each policy, their likely effectiveness in terms of addressing the current bottlenecks. This is particularly important now that difficult choices need to be made by the government on a daily basis - opportunity costs are everywhere and this cannot be hidden any more.

How to fix the justice system is probably the most conspicuous example of the urgency of specific proposals for reform. On the other hand, teacher evaluation - a terribly important idea that, in my view, was terribly implemented - is a good example of the problems that can arise when big reforms are introduced without prior debate. In fact, the education ministry is still discussing how to implement that reform already four years after first introducing it.

In an ideal world, political parties would present their manifestos - where they outline the key reforms they plan to introduce in a relatively detailed way - and then stick to them if they get elected. But, apparently, it seems that nobody wins elections in Portugal by announcing unpopular reforms, especially when the other parties can take the populist route and claim that all is well, that we can borrow our way out of the current mess and that, in the end, the State will sort everything out.

But the blame needs to be shared. For instance, a media that does not like to discuss "details" doesn't help. (Is this because they somehow know that "details" don't sell - or because they simply don't have the know-how to do "details" properly, despite the abundant number of graduates available at low salaries?) On the other hand, many academics in Portugal either target their efforts on international journals - which, for understandable reasons, won't care too much about case studies involving Portugal - or simply do not engage with public policy issues, at least not in a way that will generate reasonable prospects for evidence-based policy.

PS [24 Feb] - Things may be changing.

1 comment:

  1. I agree and I find the need to involve academics in the public debate vital for any society. It is in fact that the essence of their chosen profession – educate, not only the students but the masses as well. Academics focus their efforts on scientific publications that are read by a restrict club of peers (and because the quantity of peer reviewed papers has a direct relationship to their pay scale = selfish). There are no significant benefits for the general population, especially when it comes to economics and social sciences in general (exact sciences is another matter, their results actually tend to be exploited by businesses and “translated” into new products for the general population). My point being that if social scientists confine themselves to certain groups, they are no longer SOCIAL scientists, but instead egocentric sickos that are afraid of a potential “public inquisition” that does not appreciate them enough. For example, in Portugal (it could any other country except, probably (because I have never been there), some Scandinavian nation), I believe that the media does not give a significant amount of time to academics because their audience is, basically, ignorant (not dumb), hence more interested in “fast food entertainment” rather than a program in some kind of alien language. However, this behavior is a direct consequence of our educational system, of the quality of the teachers. In general, Professors (of any educational level) do NOT teach students the value of knowledge, and how it is a key driver of societal development. Professors tend to demonstrate how much they know instead of making students understand what he/she knows. Consequently, the general population will never be interested in voluntarily watching (or vote for) something they do not understand. Because even after years spent at educational “prisons”, the only things they do understand are soap operas and short sentences.
    Most likely, at this point, the vast majority of you are thinking: “eureka! This guy is rediscovering the wheel”. No, it is not a novel idea, but it is, still, for most academics, a novel behavior. The irony (and now using economics language), is that the very same that advocate the importance of long-run thinking are short-run practitioners. The owners of knowledge tend to hide that unique capital and capture short-run rents instead of realizing that in the long-run everybody could be better off (by really educating the students, actively participating in public debates, etc.). And I do mean everybody, we could have better citizens, professionals, politicians, economic growth, …, HappyLand!
    The academics are the top of the pyramid of knowledge, at the top of the mountain. We should not expect those attempting to climb to give us guidance (in general). We shall be the gentle ones and help them find the road because otherwise they will drag us to an unpleasant state (e.g. ridiculous politicians winning elections and dragging us to a social and economic hell). And I would not worry about the top of the mountain getting too crowded… at least, we would never be cold again.
    I am very happy to observe a boom in Portuguese blogs about relevant issues, including the Portuguese Economy. That is definitely an important step toward the dissemination of knowledge. Bem hajam!