socioeconomic technocrat training 101

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” – Karl Marx

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

“Only several thousand Kampucheans might have died due to some mistakes in implementing our policy of providing an affluent life for the people.” – Pol Pot

So, you want to effect meaningful socioeconomic change and measure its success in terms of a societal net good!

Ha! Lemme stop you right there. You got a lot to learn, kid. Sure, we all want to change the world. But measuring stuff, especially outcomes, is really hard! Some might say impossible! Of course we know what we’re doing, but if you declare from the outset that you know what the aggregate outcomes will be, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Defining complicated measures of success merely invites debbie downer critics to poke all sorts of holes in our wonderful plan that we know** will work. So, how to avoid this?


Let’s take a simple, hypothetical example: We all know** that eating as many bananas as possible is good, in order to increase potassium intake.

**results are inconclusive, but one study sponsored by the International Board of Banana Manufacturer Sciencey Sounding Scientists assures us it’s totally legit.

Therefore, we all know we must get people eating bananas. Let’s mandate that everyone has to buy 5 bananas a week. If you have any doubts that this isn’t a good idea, allow me to refer you to our neighbor, Shelbyville, who enacted identical legislation: at the time of this article’s writing, they are proud to declare an astonishing per capita banana/week buy rate of 4.999 bananas/week! Success! Some might say that we should look at whether we have seen actual positive health outcomes, or perhaps look at possible negative side-effects, such as skyrocketing rates of diabetes, potassium poisoning, banana cartels posting record profits, and mounds of rotting bananas on the street. But why? Do you hate progress? We would be irresponsible not to take action here.

But what about a real economy in the real world:

Hiring locally is good, right? Of course! Why? Let’s not get into that right now – but experts agree that hiring local labor within the certain, arbitrary confines of a metropolitan area is better than hiring outside of those boundaries. Nevertheless, the mindless nabobs of skepticism will always be looking for opportunities to ask pesky questions like “why?”, and “how do you know?” and “what about all the inevitable, distorting consequences and externalities?” Don’t give them the chance to derail our progress. Set terms of success and justify our plans entirely with metrics that are circular and arbitrary. We need to ensure that 40% of all construction labor is hired locally. It worked in San Francisco! They enacted the regulations, and now 40% of all construction labor there is local! Success! It wasn’t easy, of course. They had to spend a lot more money to accomplish their arbitrary goal, but they succeeded! Progress!

“Isn’t that a bit tautological?” you might ask. “Didn’t you just mandate a thing and then spend more money to guarantee compliance and then celebrate compliance? You can do that literally with anything. How do we know that we actually helped the economy at large? What about the artificially inflated labor costs? What about the previously-employed out of towners abruptly excluded from the market? Shouldn’t you do a little more due diligence before declaring success? How do you sleep at night?”

What are you, a lawyer? We all know that hiring locally is good, and now we have more local labor. Success!

Now healthcare – boy, that’s a doozy. No one seems to really know why healthcare is getting so expensive and why more and more people can’t afford it. It’s so complicated! Or is it? What if instead of focusing on healthcare outcomes, we simply focus on health insurance! Most people don’t know the difference anyway. The brilliant minds supporting Affordable Care Act realized this a long time ago. Why focus on the messy and hard (maybe impossible!) measuring of health outcomes when we can simply mandate that everyone has to be insured. Much easier to measure! Ones and zeros – either you’re insured or not. Now it’s much easier to declare success – look at all the people that are insured now! How could anyone dare to contest this? Do they hate progress?

If you want to immediately claim the rhetorical highground, you cannot fail if you aim for what we already know: that our mandate was fulfilled. Take George W Bush and the War on Iraq, for example. We can learn a lot from this master of planning! Iraq is a complicated place – like, really complicated. We know of course (of course) that invading was the right thing to do, but proving why is really hard! Much easier is to set a date for when we’ve won the war. When that date arrives? BOOM! Unfurl the victory banner: we just won the war. Think he was wrong? Was it or Was it not May 1, 2003? Was that or was it not the date we set for the end of the war? Ergo, in your face.

Hopefully this brief tour of rhetorical tautology has been helpful, and remember: there is no limit to the change you can make in the world if you put your mind to it and try to avoid having to defend any objective, measurable, positive terms of success.