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article imageOp-Ed: Risks, feeling safe, and how to understand government policy by riding a bicycle

By Paul Wallis     Jun 21, 2008 in Politics
The theory of risk is that you take risks you think you’ll probably survive. The theory of policy making is that to solve problems you take risks you think other people might approve, based mainly on intuition.
That’s fine, because they’re taking the risks and you’re getting the approval.
Apply this to governments, and you can see where this goes. The Washington Post, in a quest to understand government interventions, and why they backfire, has discovered what may well be a working model of policy making… using a bicycle, a wig, and a guy riding said bicycle who’s probably uninsurable.
There are similarities between government policies and riding a bicycle:
1. They’re both useless when not balanced and in motion.
2. Their best method of survival is not to come in contact with anything else.
3. They’re slower than everything else on the road, except roadkills.
4. They don’t have a reverse gear.
The main difference is that people for some unfathomable reason don’t swipe government policies.
So WP’s Shankar Vedantam has pieced together a saga of policies and bicycles. (Article courtesy David Silverberg)
First, the policies:
While it seems like common sense to pump money into an economy that is pulling the bedcovers over its head, the problem with most social interventions is that they target not robots and machines but human beings -- who regularly respond to interventions in contrarian, paradoxical and unpredictable ways.
"How well does government do in helping the market to improve what it does?" asked Clifford Winston, an economist at the Brookings Institution and the author of the 2006 book "Market Failure Versus Government Failure." "The research consistently finds that, in fact, government efforts to correct market failures have little effect, or actually make things worse."
This is where the risk management comes in.
Nobody could call behavioral analysis of governments a pleasant task. For the last 5000 years history has been trying to make sense out of it, and failed.
Now, perhaps, a breakthrough:
Previous research has shown that people drive faster in vehicles that feel safer, attempt to bike on more dangerous terrain when they wear helmets and pay less attention to infants being bathed when the children are in seats that are said to reduce the risk of drowning.
Winston does not believe in one-size-fits-all solutions -- whether interventionist approaches that liberals favor, or the hands-off strategies that conservatives prefer. Rather, he argues that solutions need to be tailored to produce measurably successful outcomes.
Which, on the face of it, would suggest that governments based on these political biases have no hope of ever dealing with anything. That’s not exactly news, but it is nice to know someone’s been able to prove it.
So came the bike analogy. A guy in England, a traffic psychologist, (can you imagine a more demanding career), tried out various methods of riding, close to the curb, away from it, with a helmet, and even with a wig, pretending to be a female rider. He described his rides as interventions, and he did get a measurable level of responses regarding the sort of risks motorists were prepared to take with his safety.
When he was wearing a helmet, he was considered safe enough, so the traffic charged past, sometimes dangerously close. When he was considered a woman, or didn’t wear a helmet, he was given more leeway.
Take this a step further, and you can see that what WP’s Vendantam is talking about.
There are other similarities with bicycles, too.
Anyone who’s ever come off a bicycle in a spectacular way ( I have, it was the only 12 foot, 360 degree flying somersault I ever want to do) will know that it’s a pretty unforgettable experience, when it happens to you.
Government interventions tend to be pretty unforgettable, too.
No Child Left Behind, for example, which appears to be downscaling somewhat to No Child Left, would be one.
The reform of the health insurance system, which so far is America’s answer to the Black Death, would be another.
Might be onto something here. All government policymakers should be made to ride bicycles.
Particularly legislative and policy committees.
On freeways, clearly labeled, displaying which policies they're considering.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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