Thinking Negative: Why Proposed Reforms Probably Won’t Work
Much in the public policy world invites reform. Broken federal policies and programs abound. The quest for policy debaters is to craft and advocate reform proposals likely to make the world a better place. Public school debaters have economic engagement with Mexico, Cuba, or Venezuela as their topic. NCFCA debaters are reforming federal election law. Stoa debaters are looking to reform federal marine natural resource policies. (And next year’s public school topic calls for increasing ocean exploration and development.)
The ocean and marine natural resources topic stretches over the 3.4 million square nautical miles of the U.S. EEZ ocean surface area (4.5 million square miles), and the topic is deep: from the surface down to the ocean floor and maybe miles below if subsurface mineral rights are considered part of the topic. (Image from NOAA page.)
Plus! Various federal agencies regulate coastal zones, estuaries, and nearby rivers and streams. So Stoa debate students have a wide, wide range of federal programs and reform proposals to draw from in fashioning affirmative cases.
Yet history shows that few affirmative cases would achieve their stated goals. Most federal programs and policies enacted over the last century have failed to achieve their original goals. Each failure though invites further reforms and amendments designed to fix unexpected problems. This is the process of “interventionist dynamics” where interventions stimulate factions to lobby for further interventions. (More on the Dynamics of a Mixed Economy in this Freeman book review.)
Federal housing, transportation, education, agriculture, environmental and energy policies, plus foreign military interventions, welfare programs, medical research, and space programs all have some successes for the billions of dollars spent, but have achieved less and cost more than projected in originating legislation. Federal marine natural resource policies have a similar mixture of successes, unexpected failures, and costs far higher than projected.
Advocates for these federal programs can of course point to accomplishments, and each new program has layered-up with administrators and advocates (beneficiaries) from private firms and nonprofit organizations, as well as formed associations and advocacy groups. However, examining the original legislation and claims by early advocates, most federal programs accomplish less and cost more than planned, plus have unintended and unwanted consequences.
Megan McArdle is blogging on a Johns Hopkins University course on the economics and politics of policy failures. The first post is titled: “Learning From Iraq, Katrina, and other Policy Failures.” The course seems valuable for debaters arguing the negative against a wide range of possible affirmative cases. John Hopkins professor Steve Teles explains the course goals:
The class is about large-scale, negative policy consequences — that is, what explains why policies sometimes work very, very differently than their authors intended. So that’s what it’s “about” in a topical sense, but it’s also “about” developing a particular set of skills in the students — a “catastrophic imagination” in the students — an ability to imagine all the things that can go wrong, even about measures that one supports.
Consider an affirmative case for a new “National Oceans Policy” that would allow and encourage government agencies and “stakeholders” to better
coordinate and streamline federal oceans policies. Debaters can read many words about the plan on many government websites, including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management:
Designed to be a living document, the Implementation Plan translates the National Ocean Policy into on-the-ground actions to benefit the American people. With significant public input from a wide spectrum of individuals and interests, the final Implementation Plan focuses on improving coordination to increase administrative efficiencies in the Federal permitting process; better manage the ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources that drive so much of our economy; develop and disseminate sound scientific information that local communities, industries, and decision-makers can use; and collaborate more effectively with State, Tribal, and local partners, marine industries, and other stakeholders. Without creating any new regulations or authorities, the plan will ensure the many Federal agencies involved in ocean management work together to reduce duplication and red tape and use taxpayer dollars more efficiently.
|Sometimes “stakeholders” act independently.|
How will ocean policy “stakeholders” be made to “collaborate more effectively” with government agencies and each other? Aren’t many in competition for use of ocean resources? Some coastal property owners want to build new houses or docks or oyster beds or salmon hatcheries. These uses have environmental impacts on neighbors and ecosystems. Sports fishermen chase after many of the same fish as commercial fishermen.
There is competition as well between private firms and associations looking to improve fishing opportunities, and government-owned and operated services. Salmon hatcheries are one example. Washington state operated 83 hatcheries producing salmon, steelhead and trout. The state of California lists 23 hatcheries here. And the Kiwanis Club of Smith River has its own Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery.
IT WAS ONLY A DREAMIn 1968 the 15-member Kiwanis Club of Smith River decided to sponsor the construction and operation of a fish hatchery to increase and perpetuate the native runs of Steelhead and Chinook salmon in the Smith River.
Here is the Smith river fishing news for February 21, 2014.
The Department of the Interior wants salmon runs back in California rivers and is trying to clear a path for them from ocean to upstream spawning grounds. That may be a great policy for salmon enthusiasts, but California rivers run long distances and stream flows have alternative uses (irrigation is one). Dams along the Klamath river in northern California provide hydroelectric energy, flood control, and recreation. The Department of Interior and environmental groups apparently want these dams removed. Here is a video with the ranchers side of the story, from Americans for Prosperity California (source page).
A key perspective on marine natural resources is that they are limited and valued by various people for various reasons. Some people enjoy fishing, swimming, scuba-diving, surfing, boating, sailing and kayaking. Limited marine natural resources can’t satisfy all those uses, at least not at the same time. Ports, rivers, and coastal waters are valuable for transporting goods and people. People living along the coasts enjoy the view, access to the beach, and the sound of the surf.
Like all economic goods, marine natural resources are scarce, even with five million square miles of oceans, rivers, and coastlines. Economists explain that property rights and related rule of law institutions can best coordinate competing water uses and at the same time encourage entrepreneurs and enterprises to both conserve scarce marine resources and discover ways to create more. I’ve recommended before Richard Stroup’s Eco-nomics:What Everyone Should Know About Economics and the Environment. You can “look inside” for free on Amazon (and the Kindle edition is just $3.19).
Earlier posts have suggested ways to better allocate existing water resources in California, and ways to expand marine natural resources with new water sources.