The Impotence of Numbers

Recent events in the spheres of US policy on Syria, healthcare, and free trade have exposed what seems a fundamental human truth: no one really cares about the numbers.

For all our talk of data-driven policy (and the treasure troves of information available to us), it is not apparent that our decision making is based on what rigorous analysis might suggest the best solutions are. The long and short of it is that, when it comes to making policy decisions, we are far more human than we are rational.

Three examples will suffice.

In Syria, the US has stood idly by while more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed by their own government. We have watched report after report of buildings being leveled, whole towns being destroyed, barrel bombs being dropped, and children being killed. The horror and devastation in Syria is nothing new; it is now more than six years in the making.

Yet, it was not the impersonal “400,000 and rising” death toll that moved the United States to action; it was the deaths of 85 people and the images of children foaming at the mouth following a recent chemical weapons attack that finally prompted a response from the US in the form of a retaliatory missile strike. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. Indeed, it is much harder for government officials to ignore pictures of dead infants than a faceless number.

Concerning healthcare, as Chris Medrano noted in 3rd Law’s most recent Culinary Caucus podcast, many counties throughout the country may soon see a loss of healthcare insurers altogether under the Affordable Care Act. For instance, Margot Sanger-Katz reports that Anthem, one of the largest insurers voluntarily participating in ACA exchanges, may soon leave markets entirely, despite the fact that it is the only insurer in nearly 300 counties across 14 states. The point is that current healthcare policy is as flawed in certain respects as many critics made it out to be when the ACA was first passed.

However, when it comes to what we think of the law, we rarely look at what the big data tells us about skyrocketing costs and long term viability. Instead, we are far likelier to pay attention to the powerful stories of individuals whose lives were literally saved by the Affordable Care Act because of its mandate protecting Americans with preexisting conditions. And this makes sense; after all, shouldn’t we be placing the emphasis on finding ways for more, rather than fewer, of our fellow Americans to have access to life-saving care?

Regarding free trade, the numbers easily demonstrate the harm done to Americans by protectionism. For instance, when President Obama moved to protect tire factory workers from foreign competition, approximately 1,200 jobs were saved. However, the cost to the American taxpayer for this decision was $1.1billion—or some $900,000 for each job saved—in addition to the loss of some 3,500 retail jobs directly resulting from this protective policy.

Despite these clear costs, we still make decisions to protect jobs and industries, and the reason for this is much akin to the one surrounding the question of government-run healthcare: wouldn’t we prefer that our fellow Americans remain employed rather than being told that there simply isn’t a place for them any longer in the modern economy?

All of this is to say that what the numbers indicate might make sense at the macro level often holds little sway at the more personal, micro level, and this is precisely what makes good governance so difficult. After all, navigating the facts that the world is made of people, not numbers, but that what is best for the whole may not be best for a part makes for perhaps the hardest line to walk. It is easy for a congressional Republican with outstanding healthcare coverage to argue that the government can’t afford to provide healthcare for every citizen; it is easy for a congressional Democrat to point to remarkable success stories of the ACA without addressing its systemic fiscal flaws.

Numbers without a human face often accomplish very little in arguments, but they nevertheless matter and need to be taken seriously if we wish to craft good policy. We would do well to take more honest stock of our own biases towards the micro level in policy conversations so as to make space for wiser and more frank consideration of the real constraints and demands placed upon us by the numbers.

Nathan Thompson

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