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[vc_row][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_column_text]david-ellwood-2.249.167.s“Daniel Patrick Moynihan represented, to my eyes, the best in public service. I think of Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a magnificent thinker, larger than life. He was a man of both deep intellectual thought and principled action, a combination that is altogether too rare. I admired him intensely.”

“I first met Daniel Patrick Moynihan in about 1980 and I had just read The Moynihan Report in a serious way for the first time. I was a young, new assistant professor and he came to visit the Kennedy School. I went up to him in a little social gathering and said, ‘Your Moynihan Report was visionary. It was terrific; I just thought it was so impressive.’ He looked at me – I had a beard and kind of long hair – and through clenched teeth he said, ‘It took me ten years to get over that report,’ and he turned away. Yet five years later he came back to the school and gave one of our most prestigious lectures, using the occasion to once again talk about family structure and the re-emergence of that critical set of issues. We see that report is one of the great visionary reports of all time, as William Julius Wilson just mentioned. It was classic Moynihan. It pulled together little bits and pieces of evidence and came to a startling conclusion. And it was not just a report. It was designed to spur action by the President to take on these challenges.”

“I subsequently had many occasions to meet him. He was one of the first people I saw on coming to Washington because, of course, one does need to see one’s confirmation committee chair quite quickly. He said, as I recall, ‘David, Welcome to Washington. I look forward to reading your book about why welfare reform failed this time.’ And he would periodically take me out to lunch. (I dealt with him because I was just about the only person in the administration working on this topic that he seemed to tolerate). These meetings were an intellectual and political feast. And when I was leaving the administration, just before welfare reform was finalized— when it became clear that I was not comfortable in the direction it was heading–he took me to lunch again and he said, ‘David, there is a time to stay and a time to go. This is the right time to go. Well done.’ His words meant the world to me.”

“I want to pick up on the theme that we have heard about repeatedly tonight: when is it that political and social scientists have influence on policy? And, why isn’t the influence greater? First of all, I think there are actually two places where we have lots of influence. One is what I would call the big ideas. Social and political scientists sometimes come up with paradigm shifting ideas that reframe the entire policy debate. Joe Nye’s ‘soft power,’ Bill Wilson’s work on concentrated poverty and marriageable men, work on the spatial dimension of crime and so many others are all examples of big ideas that have changed the way we think about a problem or maybe even have let people see a problem that they did not know existed. Those ideas are rare and special and not always welcome by the policy profession. Almost by definition, big ideas challenge orthodoxy, and sometimes they make a big difference.”

“The second way in which scholars really can have influence is through powerful, objective evaluations. Serious evaluations of public policies, often using randomized controlled experiments, are becoming more common. In my field of welfare, the work of MDRC and similar firms has been superb and hugely important. Now, at long last, we are seeing such evaluations in education and other social policy realms. Typically the lessons from credible evaluations are simple. They show that “this worked” or “this did not work.” And thoughtful people from across the political spectrum take such results very seriously.”

“There is a third type of policy influence that is still troublingly rare. That is the influence of social scientists and political scientists on public policy development and design — the very creation of the detailed policies themselves. What I am talking about are the thoughtful, serious policies that form the backbone of policy development and practice. The one exception to this is probably macroeconomics. But I am not a macroeconomist (and by the way, microeconomists get as confused about what macroeconomists do and how they do it as the rest of you do). So the obvious question is why do so few people from academia actually come and participate, join a team, or at least play a really central role from the outside?”

“I would like to argue that in some ways it is shocking that any of us have real influence, and then I want to conclude with a few thoughts about how we might do better.”

Compare the worlds of governance and scholarship. Public policy is about politics, because democracy is about politics. And political values, constituencies, advocacy, courting of moneyed interests, are central to democratic politics. Each political party has different core principles. Election requires serving and engaging constituents, building alliances, supporting your friends, challenging your enemies. And politics calls for raising money—sometimes from quite self-interested sources.

“And what do we political and social scientists cherish above all? We are supposed to believe in objective truth. At best, we will talk about politics as a constraint on getting to the truth. We are especially nervous about powerful interests who feel strongly that public policy should go in a certain way. We almost by nature resist any temptation to appease key constituents because we are going to be tainted by their special interests.”

“Most policy-makers and most politicians, on the other hand, do not recoil at the notion that there might be strong interests supporting them in their position. To give you a couple of examples: one of my roles during the Clinton administration on welfare reform was to deal with outside groups. I was in charge of dealing with AFSCME, the largest public sector union, so I met with AFSCME’s president, Gerry McEntee. At our first meeting, McEntee looked at me and said, ‘Near as I can tell, you want to create more public service jobs for welfare recipients than I have members. I find that a little threatening.’ That was a really good opening line. And I stumbled over my answer.”

“Even more telling in some respects was a comment that was made to me. I was one of three people, along with Mary Jo Bane and Bruce Reed, in the early part of the Clinton administration, who were supposedly kind of overseeing welfare reform. And at one point, fairly far along, the chief political officer for the Department of Health and Human Services came to me, someone who was a good friend of mine and so forth, and he said, ‘You know, David, when the final deal is cut on welfare reform, you won’t be in the room.’ And I said, ‘I am one of those in charge. We are making these decisions, we are figuring it out, and no one knows more.’ And he said, ‘David, you care more about the impacts on poor people than you do about the political futures of those making the final decisions. You won’t be in the room.'”

“Another obvious difference is the primacy of action versus ideas. If you sit in the Congress or the White House or the State House, your goal is to pass a bill, to get something to happen, to make a policy change. And there are events and elections that open a rare window of opportunity. You must act now or the chance will be lost. You strike while the iron is hot, whether or not the evidence is in. Moreover, getting something passed may require making compromises, accepting elements one does not believe in, and adding policies that can seem silly or even dangerous. To those of us in academia, ideas are what really matter, rather than whether or not some bill gets passed quickly, especially a poorly thought out bill full of political compromise. Nothing is better to us than a beautiful model. We believe reflection is far more important than action. (If you do not believe this, attend a faculty meeting). We always believe more information is needed. Truman used to say he wanted a one-handed economist because his were always saying “on the one hand – on the other hand.” Any of you who have tried to put together a conference volume, even from papers that were supposedly already done, know that timeliness never, never trumps thoughtful, accurate, effective scholarship. All of these characteristics make us very dangerous political allies. Not only are we hesitant and indecisive, we speak our minds publicly. We might even resign in protest.”

“And so why on earth should or would politicians want to have to deal with scholars, who are so preoccupied with truth and ideas, and ultimately principles, when policymakers are trying to get something done? And why should we scholars enter a process that inevitably forces us to compromise our core values? Does it really matter, anyway?”

“I believe we must have scholars to be involved because democracy needs some voices on the inside who focus on facts before politics. Pat Moynihan’s notion that was cited earlier this evening was dead on: policymakers are welcome to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. We have been through a period where facts seemed only relevant through a political lens, often used only when convenient for beating up the opposition. Those of us who have worked on political campaigns or even been in government, know that one of our major roles is to convince our side not to say something that is completely wrong or completely stupid and completely inconsistent with any evidence whatsoever. That is a really important role. Effective decision making requires the presence of some people who really do put truth before salability, and who are not beholden to outsiders.”

“We also want scholars involved because they can often see the larger implications of smaller decisions using models and theories and ideas. Scholars are more likely to see the unexpected and counterproductive consequences of seemingly appealing policies. They understand where critical opportunities lie and how altered policies will shape behavior. We need scholars involved so that they can explain and spread the big ideas that are now emerging. Policymaking must by necessity be practiced by people who are radically pragmatic. But ideas and idealists are a vital leavening. We need truth tellers, canaries in the coal mine, and the occasional game-changing vision.”

“It is equally important for academics that some of our number do spend time in government and governing. Those of us who have had the opportunity to serve really do come back and ask different questions. We see the possible in a different light. Politics becomes a source of information about people’s values and expectations rather than an unpleasant constraint. The risk of scholarship writing itself into beautiful irrelevance is sharply reduced if at least some of its leaders deal in a serious and intense way with those who are elected or appointed to serve the people. Asking the right questions is the hard part for most of us, and working with democratic institutions teaches us to focus so differently.”

“And, of course, working in government can be incredibly exciting. Getting a chance to change the tax code so that millions more people get a tax credit for working and then watching as work increases dramatically among low income mothers does have a certain intense hold that seems hard to match—even if the intellectual content of changing basic incentives is not exactly at the frontier of knowledge.”

“So for democracy and for our professions, I would argue that it is imperative that more scholars engage and participate. Frankly, I do not expect politics or politicians to change too quickly. I believe, though I have never examined any evidence, that staff in both the Congress and the executive branch are becoming better trained over time and more open to critical intellectual ideas. But the core themes of politics and policymakers will always turn critically on action and advocacy and alliances.”

“So I think it falls to us in academia to push our profession to be a little more admiring of service, a little more forgiving of uneasy political engagements, a little more open to the ideas and insights from those who have dirtied themselves. I believe this can be done without compromising our most precious ideal of pursuing truth and objectivity.”

“To start with, many of us need to think very differently about politics. Economists are especially challenged in this regard. We just think politics is at best a constraint and at worst a dangerous impediment to wise and efficient policy. But one of the things I learned most vividly was that politics is about information. It is about understanding the values that people hold dear, and values are quite vital to everything we do. At one time academics all seemed to love the guaranteed annual income or the negative income tax—even Milton Friedman supported it. But to sell the idea, politicians had to claim it encouraged work—which it really did not. An idea, no matter how appealing, is not good policy if you have to sharply mislead the American public to convince them to be for it. We proclaim our faith in democracy while casually arguing that the public is badly informed. Politics and its derivative policies are largely about values.”

“On core policy values, honest scholars have two choices. They can either assert up front ‘I have these certain value-laden principles that help guide my policy’, e.g. ‘if you work you should not be poor’ or ‘it is reasonable to expect people to work if they are able and if work pays.’ Or they can accept the core policy values of the political leaders. Too often scholars try to hide their values when looking at policy. And when social scientists get into power sometimes they fight with each other using data that is really about values. During the Jimmy Carter days, the Labor Department and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare had a huge fight because the Labor Department wanted work-based reforms that were based on common opportunity and expectations placed on citizens, in other words supporting workers but insisting on work. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare folks wanted a negative income tax based on minimum common rights of citizens. The competing teams had dueling simulation models that sought to prove the virtues of their own strategy. The truth was that these were incompatible ideals.”

“It’s worth noting that once a basic outline of the ideals is set, we scholars are exceptionally good at thinking about the means to the ends. If one was seeking to consider the ways to ensure that people who worked are not poor, academics have wonderful tools for examining alternative options. It is comparatively easy to ask which methods are most effective in getting people working. Should we raise the minimum wage or expand the Earned Income Tax Credit? Should we use incentives or some sort of requirements or rules-based system and the like?”

“We are not as good at thinking about implementation, but we ought to be. Scholars should value work that looks at the forces that can shape and alter delivery systems and bureaucracies. We need to understand how and when policies actually successfully get implemented. In the end, I concluded that welfare reform needed to focus on changing the culture of welfare offices, not the culture of poverty. By the way, implementation design is something that Congress is equally bad at. Congress is remarkably good at passing laws that have no credible way of working. They pass a new rule every day when they find some legitimate yet often isolated problem, and the accumulation of policies looks like the tax code. Manuals for welfare workers would literally be books and books and books and books thick. So guess what? There actually wound up being no policy rather than effective policy.”

“In my view, we must find a way in academia to reward and admire service. This can be done in several ways. We can welcome practitioners into our midst and listen to and learn from them. We can have policy schools where policy impact gets a bit more weight. But ultimately I hope that we might learn to value and evaluate service in much the same way we do with journal articles. Did the person provide important and honest ideas? At the time and in the period since, can they look critically at the policy ideas being considered? Has the scholar become an advocate, or a wiser observer? Did the ideas really have an impact?”

“There are home runs in the intellectual policy arena too. We ought to find a way to evaluate them with the same rigor and admiration we apply to traditional research. Very few of our departments actually look at that in anything other than a neutral fashion, but more commonly negative. I remember when I was in the job market long ago and I went to various universities and I would occasionally dare to say, ‘I am kind of interested in doing public policy work.’ And some places would implicitly say, ‘Why didn’t you tell us this earlier? We could have saved your plane fare.’ The more open minded suggested, ‘You know, policy work is fine. Some people play basketball with their free time, you can do policy, as long as it does not interfere with your work.’ We really do have to decide, if we believe this, that we are actually going to reward it so that young people that do it. I believe our democracy and our scholarship urgently need a more supportive atmosphere.”

“So, thanks again to the Academy. Pat Moynihan was a remarkable man and none of us, I think, will ever have the chance to be or even see anyone much like him. I think he would be very discouraged if he felt like the professions that he participated in and the social science did not figure out a way to keep social scientists involved. So here is a Pat Moynihan dream. When we have these awards 10 years from now, the dream would be that rather than having people all talk about the puzzle of why we don’t we have more influence or why academia does not value policy work, all of the honorees will say, ‘Isn’t it great that scholarly ideas are so often a central part of everything we do.'”

“So from the bottom of my heart, thank you very much for this great honor.”

David Ellwood is dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The preceding remarks were taken from his acceptance speech delivered at the Newseum on May 7, 2009 upon receiving the 2009 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.
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