By Ricardo Haussman
Amman – It has become a habit to blame the economy or economists for many of the evils of this world. Critics hold economic theories responsible for rising inequality, lack of good jobs, financial fragility and low economic growth, among others. But while criticism may spur economists to strive harder, the onslaught centered on the profession has unintentionally diverted attention from a discipline that could offer much more to blame: public policy.
Economics and public policy are closely linked, but they are not the same, and should not be seen as such. Economics is for public policy, just as physics is for engineering, or biology for medicine. While physics is fundamental to designing rockets that can use energy to defy gravity, Isaac Newton was not responsible for the disaster that struck the Challenger spacecraft. Likewise, biochemistry cannot be blamed for the death of Michael Jackson.
Physics, biology and economics, like science, answer questions about the nature of the world we live in, producing what economist Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University calls propositional knowledge. On the one hand, engineering, medicine, and public policy, answer questions about how to change the world in certain ways, leading us to what Mokyr calls recommendative knowledge.
Although engineering schools teach physics and medical biology schools, these professional disciplines have departed – in many ways – from the sciences underlying them. In fact, by developing their own criteria of excellence, curriculum, studies and career paths, engineering and medicine have become special species.
In contrast, public policy schools have not undergone an equivalent transformation. Many do not even hire from their own faculties, but use professors in basic sciences such as economics, psychology, sociology or political science. The Harvard Graduate School of Public Policy has a very large faculty of its own – but it recruits mainly PhD graduates in basic sciences, and promotes them based on their publications in leading sciences journals, and not in those of public policy.
Experience in policymaking before achieving professional viability is discouraged and rare. And even those with some life expectancy in the profession have a surprisingly limited engagement with the world, due to prevailing employment practices, as well as fears that engaging outside the faculty may pose risks to the university’s reputation. To make up for this, public policy schools hire practicing professors, like my own, who have previously and elsewhere obtained policy-making experience.
In terms of teaching, you might think that public policy schools would have adopted a similar approach to medical schools. After all, both doctors and public policy specialists are called upon to solve problems and diagnose the underlying causes. They should also understand the range of possible solutions, as well as find the pros and cons of each. Lastly, they need to know how to implement the solution they propose, as well as assess whether it is working.
Still, most public policy schools offer only one- or two-year master’s degrees, and have a small PhD program with a structure typically similar to that of the sciences. This approach is far behind the way medical schools train doctors and advance their discipline.
Medical schools (at least in the US) accept students after they have completed a 4-year college program in which they have attended a minimum set of courses. Medical students then pursue a 2-year teaching program, followed by two years of rotation in several departments at so-called university hospitals, where they learn how things are done in practice, accompanied by their doctors and teams.
At the end of the 4-year-old, the young doctors receive a degree. But then they have to start a 3-9 year (depending on specialty) stay in a practice hospital, where they are supervised by more experienced doctors, but where they take on more responsibility. After 7 to 13 years of postgraduate study, they are finally allowed to work as doctors without supervision, though some pursue supervised, scholarships in certain fields.
Unlike medical schools, public policy practitioners virtually cease teaching after two years of study in the classroom, and (other than PhD programs) do not offer the additional years of training that medical schools offer. And yet the university hospital model can be effective in public policy as well.
Consider, for example, the Harvard University Growth Laboratory, which I founded in 2006, following my two policy engagements in El Salvador and South Africa. Since then, we have worked in dozens of states and regions. In some ways, the lab looks a bit like a university hospital. It focuses on the research and clinical work of the “patient” service, or governments in our case. In addition, we recruit PhD graduates (the equivalent of doctors who have just completed their studies) as well as masters (like medical students after their first two years of school). We also recruit college graduates as research assistants, or “nurses”.
In addressing the problems of “our patients”, the Laboratory develops new diagnostic tools to identify both the nature of the problems they are experiencing and the therapeutic methods to overcome them. And we work with governments to implement these changes. And that’s where we learn more. In this way, we ensure that theory informs practice, and that observations made in practice inform our future research.
Governments tend to trust the Laboratory because we do not have a motive for profit, but simply a desire to learn with them, helping them solve their problems. Our “students” stay with us for 3 to 9 years, just like in a medical school, and often occupy high positions in their home governments after leaving. Instead of using our experience to create “intellectual property”, we deliver it through publications, online tools and courses. Our reward is the fact that others apply our methods.
This structure was not planned: it simply appeared on the road. It was not promoted from above, but simply allowed to develop. However, if this idea of these “university hospitals” were to be embraced, it would radically change the way public policies would be promoted, taught, and served the world. Perhaps after that, people would stop blaming economists for things that should never have been their responsibility.
Ricardo Hausmann, former Minister of Planning in Venezuela and former Chief Economist at the Inter-American Development Bank, is a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and Director of the Harvard Growth Lab