The Importance of Questions in Public Policy: A Conversation with Phil Bennett

Bennett speaks to Sanford students.
Photo: SJPP, 2017

According to Phil Bennett, questions are more important than answers. On November 28th, the Emmy-award winning journalist and Sanford professor spoke with students about the importance of asking the right questions.

Bennett has the experience to back up his claim. He has worked with The Lima Times in Peru, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and is now Special Projects Editor for FRONTLINE, an investigative public affairs program from PBS.

Questions drive investigative journalism.

Bennett explained with an example from his time at The Washington Post. The attacks on September 11th, 2001 ignited a massive change in U.S. foreign policy. Out of these horrific acts rose the questions “How did this happen?’ and “How will the U.S. respond?” The Post’s leadership recognized these questions would frame much of their reporting for the foreseeable future. Focusing their agenda to pursue specific stories allowed them to try to unravel how these events would impact the United States.

Over a decade later, important stories continue to flow from these questions.

But asking the right questions, and continuing to pursue them, can be difficult.

An increasing obsession with likes, retweets, and trending topics can divert attention away from the necessary questions journalists should be asking. In politics and policy, language and superficial statements can dominate the conversation, blinding reporters, and the rest of us, to actions occurring beneath the guise of speech.

For example, many trending stories involve President Trump’s speech, but not the actions his administration is taking. Trump’s comments about the NFL, administration staff, and the FBI take center stage. Less recognition is given to actions taken by federal agencies and changes in policy.

But Bennett suggested that there are still reporters asking the right questions. In a series of articles in Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short, the 2008 bestseller exploring the financial crisis, unveils the inner workings of the Department of Energy and the U.S.D.A. under the Trump Administration.

Journalists have also started to uncover the Environmental Protection Agency’s shift toward valuing the research and opinions of corporations and industry over those of its own scientists. These changes have had a profound impact on policies issued from the agency and the administration. In March, President Trump issued an executive order to review, and possibly rescind, regulations “that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources.” As of this summer, under the guidance of Scott Pruitt, the EPA has acted to change more than 30 environmental rules.

Effective evaluation of public policy mirrors effective journalism. Questions allow us to clearly define problems, conduct evidence-based research, efficiently present possible solutions to current policy problems, and make decisions.

So what are some questions public policy students can ask themselves as they begin internships and jobs, take on projects, and engage in meaningful work?

  • What group or groups are we trying to help with a policy proposal? What group or groups will bear unintended consequences?
  • Is the present policy problem a symptom of a larger problem in society?
  • Can the present policy issue be subdivided into smaller issues?
  • What are the interdependencies between this policy problem and others?
  • Is the desired change going to play out incrementally or all at once?
  • What is the value of further researching an area as compared to the costs?

Whether assessing tax law, health or education policy, energy regulations, or national security, it is important to take a step back and ask the key questions. Rather than letting politics or the influence of social media guide research, we need to think critically, delve into the details, and implement evidence-based policies.

Gabrielle Murphy is a first-year MPP student interested in tax policy and public finance.

An Interview with Jay Pearson


Jay A. Pearson, Assistant Professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy
Source: Duke University, 2017

Jay Pearson is an assistant professor at Dukes Sanford School of Public Policy, with research focusing on the health disparities between distinct social groups.  He recently published a challenging op-ed in the L.A. Times titled Donald Trump is a Textbook Racist, in which he comprehensively explains how the presidents behavior fits every academic definition of racism. 

The op-ed was the first of a planned series which will next address our misguided notion of extreme vetting.  The last installment will address the Trump administrations likely poor health legacy for the nation, with a special emphasis on how his policies are likely to most impact those demographics which disproportionately voted for and continue to support him. 

Q: How would you characterize the responses to your L.A. Times op-ed?  

A: As you might imagine, the responses were incredibly varied. My contemporary colleagues – and not just at Duke but around the country – and students – and not just students who are in my course right now but students from the past – were congratulatory, supportive and encouraging.

In fact, the single most consistent message that I got from my junior faculty colleagues – again, from across the country – was, “Thank you for doing something that we all believe should have been done.”  We all had the same or at least similar training in terms of these social constructs and the conceptual definitions of them.  We teach this stuff in our courses, and we have frequently wondered why no one had done something in a public forum.  Because, you know, this issue of whether or not the president is a racist is not open to debate.  He meets and exceeds the formal definition.

Q: There’s an apparent disconnect between the academic definitions of racism and the understanding of the term among a large segment of the populace.  How do you think we bridge that gap, both individually and as a society?

A: I think we can do a significantly better job of teaching these concepts and constructs in both formal settings – that is schooling – and in informal community settings.  I am firmly of the opinion that this is stuff we should be teaching in schools fairly early on.  The interesting thing for me is the basic conceptual definition – the idea that it’s a negative prejudicial bias combined with sufficient power to leverage action – has been around since at least the ‘60s in the academy.  And so I can’t think of any good reason why it should not be incorporated into the history and social studies curricula, and not just offered to a select group of students at elite institutions like Duke.

And there are a few good models, I think, in other places of the world.  For instance, in Germany, every kid who goes to public school gets a fairly rigorous course of study on the Holocaust.  That makes sense to me.  That is not asocial.  Folks are willing to acknowledge the history, and the contemporary impact on life chances of different segments of the broader population. 

Q: What specific policies do you believe would be most effective in addressing our country’s white supremacist past and its current institutional racism?

A: It’s important for me to make a distinction here, because you introduce two constructs: one is white supremacy, and the other is institutional racism.  And I think before we can move forward with good policy on the white supremacist piece, we need to have good research and begin to systematically test the most effective strategies to communicate that concept, and communicate those in such a way that people are willing to acknowledge that white supremacy actually exists.  The literature in that area is conspicuously impoverished.

So interestingly, ironically, I suspect that Donald Trump and his administration are inspiring many of us to take more seriously the business of engaging in this particular course of scientific inquiry, that is: “What does white supremacy look like?” and what the various dimensions are, and how we go about designing effective intervention strategies to counteract its impact.

Q: In your courses you discuss the need for greater representation and retention of people of color as a means of achieving equity.  Do you have any best practices around this idea for future policy practitioners?

A: I do.  I think that first we need to not be afraid of engaging in discussion and dialogue about the value of diversity across multiple settings.  The literature here is fairly rigorous.  The findings suggest that in areas as diverse as the military and multinational corporations, leaders are stepping forward to both acknowledge the value of and encourage engagement in the process of bringing social diversity across multiple dimensions to bear.  So it’s not just racial diversity; it’s gender, it’s socio-economic position, gender identity, and sexual orientation.  The research suggests that productivity and quality of the product are both enhanced when multiple perspectives are represented.

Research also suggests that the success of diversity efforts is largely contingent upon the willingness of these very same leaders to step forward and make it a priority.  That is absolutely the case in university settings, and while I don’t know this literature nearly as well, I suspect that it’s the case in the military also.

Q: What would be your advice for policy-makers and students with respect to weighing the effects of institutional racism on their potential policy outcomes?

A: First, I would say: assume and accept that that particular phenomenon is more pervasive and impactful than most people can potentially imagine or get their heads around. This implies that you need to have some humility and listen to the voices of folks who are actually contending with the imposition of this particular phenomenon. So that’s a first.

Second, I think it is important for all of us – and we all can benefit from this – to get some more formal training, so that we have at least a rudimentary appreciation for just how pervasive this racism thing is.  So: humility and additional training.

Blake Rosser is a first-year Master of Public Policy candidate interested in political corruption and social justice.

Education and Violent Extremism in Africa: The Importance of Evidence-based Interventions for National Security

The international development sector, especially in the United States, is facing an uncertain future. Long considered to be both a virtuous endeavor and a crucial mechanism for achieving US foreign policy aims, development assistance is struggling to remain relevant. Both politicians and citizens are skeptical of development aid and are increasingly focused on more traditional strategies to ensure national security, particularly in the face of the growing threats of terrorism and violent extremism. Shifts in spending priorities call into question the longevity of US investments in education and women’s empowerment, as well as the continued existence of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and State Department in their current forms.

Education, Workforce Development, and Violent Extremism in Africa

However, as US military leaders have argued, development assistance can be just as important as defense spending to ensuring our national security. Clear connections can be drawn between expanding access to education and workforce development—areas in which USAID has built expertise—and countering violent extremism (CVE), a top foreign policy priority of the Trump administration. Violent extremist groups often recruit from the young, poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized populations of a society, which include many of the same individuals targeted by education and workforce development programs.

These connections are especially clear in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa’s youth population is growing far more quickly than the number of jobs available, leading to high rates of youth unemployment across the continent. Ten to twelve million African youth enter the workforce each year, but governments struggle to create opportunities for them in economies that are often still largely agricultural. Between 2000 and 2007, the working-age population in Africa grew by 96 million; only 63 million jobs were created during the same period.

In the absence of quality education and gainful employment, African youth may be more susceptible to recruitment by the extremist organizations gaining influence on the continent. Helping African governments figure out how to break the link between unemployed youth and extremist organizations will be a crucial policy issue for the US government as Africa’s power and population grow.

A  constructed classroom by USAID.
Abdulaziz Bashir, USAID (2017)

Education and Violent Extremism: The Evidence

 It is easy to imagine increased US support for education and workforce development programs in Africa as one solution to this problem – if African youth have access to education and jobs, courtesy of USAID-funded programs, they will be less susceptible to recruitment by extremist groups. However, reliable evidence on the relationship between education and violent extremism is actually quite scarce.  An evaluation published last year by US-based NGO MercyCorps of the impact of access to education and civic engagement programs on political violence in Somalia suggests the story is more complicated than it might seem.

The MercyCorps-led impact evaluation, which examined the effects of a USAID-funded program in Somaliland called the Somali Youth Leaders Initiative (SYLI), suggested that education can make youth either more or less likely to become involved in political violence, depending on both education quality and the larger context. It found that while increased access to secondary education reduced youth participation in political violence by 16%, it increased youth support for political violence by 11%. However, when access to education was combined with opportunities for youth to become more civically engaged in their community, participation and support for political violence dropped by 14% and 20%, respectively.

Impact of Youth Leader Initiative on Stability
Mercy Corps (2016)

While additional evaluations are necessary to confirm these results, the story they tell makes sense. Educated youth living under repressive or inept governments with no access to meaningful work opportunities may become increasingly frustrated with their situations. They may then be more likely to turn to political violence as a way to affect change. However, if youth are given positive strategies for changing their lives and communities along with access to education, and see their education as linked to a better future, they may become less likely to resort to violence than their uneducated peers.

The Impact of Education Quality

 Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the relationship between education and violence is further complicated by the question of the quality of education youth can access. Over the past decade African governments (with support from funders like USAID) have successfully increased the percentage of African children enrolled in school. However, in many cases this increased access has come with lower quality; children are now attending school, but are not learning.

MercyCorps’ study shows evidence of this trend. It found that youth with access to education had a much less favorable view of government performance in providing education – probably because they were receiving low-quality education. African governments, and their international partners like USAID, need to be worried not just about whether youth are in school and engaged in their communities, but also about whether poor-quality education is adding fuel to the fire.

Implications for Funding and Policy

As MercyCorps’ research illustrates, US policymakers concerned about the rise of extremism in Africa should think twice before abandoning US investments in education on the continent. While proposed budget cuts to USAID have yet to be approved by Congress, general consensus within the Agency is that education, environment, and gender programs are likely to be scaled back, while spending on health is likely to be maintained. Advocates for education within USAID, the State Department, and their partner organizations need to focus their message to ensure elected officials and the public understand the links between education and extremism and continue funding education interventions.

More research is needed to fully understand the relationship among education, civic engagement, and violence. However, evidence from the MercyCorps study suggests that even if funding for education is cut, prioritizing education quality, workforce development, and civic engagement will maximize the effect of US education spending on violent extremism. USAID and its partners should prioritize these strategies now, but especially if anticipated budget cuts come to pass. While the international education sector needs to tailor its advocacy message to align with the US government focus on CVE to minimize budgetary impacts on its work, it should also focus on incorporating empirical evidence like MercyCorps’ study into project design to improve learning outcomes and decrease violence.

Increasing access to quality education in Africa should be a central component of the US government’s CVE efforts on the continent. However, evidence also suggests that USAID must consider the larger context in which education takes place to ensure their programs actually increase the opportunities available for youth, rather than just their frustrations.

Sarah Maniates is a second year MPP student at Sanford concentrating in international development and education policy. She spent the summer interning with USAID’s Bureau for Africa.

Congressman Schiff’s Call to Action

Congressman Adam Schiff gave the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture on October 30, 2017 at Penn Pavilion. The conversation was moderated by Professor Bruce Jentleson.
Photographer: Jackie Park

Representative Adam Schiff spoke at Duke University as part of the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture Series on October 30th, the same day Special Counsel Robert Mueller handed down the first indictment in the Trump-Russia investigation.

Schiff is the U.S. representative from California’s 28th district and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. As a member of the committee tasked with investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, Representative Schiff addressed questions about President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who had been indicted earlier that day, and former Trump aide, George Papadopoulos, who was currently cooperating with federal investigators. Schiff spoke to the difficulty in measuring the cumulative effect of advertisements, tweets, and cultural messages propagated by Russia prior to and continuing after the election. He spoke with concern about the weaponization of language, the polarization of the media, and the fear that democracy itself could be dismantled “brick by brick.”

And while Schiff has lived and breathed the particulars of the House investigation for nearly a year, he still challenged those in the audience to take a step back from it:

“What’s the bigger picture here? For everyone in this room, we’ve lived in a world that was ever expanding in its freedoms. And each year, more of us lived in democratic societies, and more of us had a free press, and more of us had the right to practice our faith and associate with who we would, but we may now be at a point where we cannot say that will be true next year.”

As Representative Schiff responded to each of moderator Bruce Jentleson’s questions, it became increasingly clear why he’d been chosen to speak as part of The Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture Series which focuses on bringing “men and women of the highest personal and professional stature” to Duke University. Schiff’s answers felt larger than the questions themselves. He didn’t just address the possible collusion, or the constitutional crisis the country might face were Trump to fire Mueller, he cut to the core of democracy itself—and to the individual role of every American within it.

Speaking passionately, but with his characteristic calm, Schiff made clear his belief in America as more than just a country, but an idea, too. “It’s incumbent on all of us, to be champions of that idea”.

Schiff said that growing up in Boston, President John F. Kennedy’s famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you” was so much a cultural touchstone that it inspired him to a life of public service. But at the lecture he wondered aloud:

“Why would anyone want to get involved in something so crass, so ugly as our political environment right now? I feel like everyone in my generation should apologize in everyone in your generation for handing off a piece of work.”

But Schiff did more than apologize, he put out a call to action:

“We need you,” he said, looking out at the Duke students, faculty, and staff assembled. “We need you more than ever. With the incredible array of things going wrong, it’s tempting to say I’m not going to begin at all. And I would just say to you, don’t try to do it all. Just decide in the next year, or two years, or however long it takes, I’m going to make a difference on the thing I care most about.”

Congressman Schiff then paused, “We’re all going to be held to answer for what we do right now.” He returned to Washington D.C. the next day. 

 Meg Fee is a first-year student at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy focusing on food policy.

Taxing the Digital Economy: Challenges in the European Union

Tax policy reform specifically targeting the digital economy has become a hotly debated subject in the European Union (EU). In recent years, several EU member states have faced issues in taxing digital technology giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. Supporters of reform, such as the governments of Germany and France, argue that companies operating in the digital arena profit unfairly of their internet-based operations. Others, such as the governments of Ireland and Luxembourg worry that tax reform could lead to double taxation and higher prices. While reform on corporate tax policy for the digital economy at the global level is far from reaching a consensus, the European Commission (EC) is calling for immediate change. Just last month, in a report prepared for the European Parliament and the Council, the EC called for reform in the corporate tax framework within the EU.

Corporate Tax Climate in the EU

Corporate tax rates in the EU are already low when compared to other groups and regions, despite the common belief that Europe taxes corporations heavily. The average statutory corporate tax rate in Europe is 18.35%, the lowest among all other regions in the world. As shown in Figure 1, the average statutory corporate tax rate in the EU’s 28 member states is 21.85%, making it the third lowest rate after Europe as a whole—all 49 countries—and Asia. If we look at tax policy reforms from this comparison, it would not be unreasonable to think that there is room for increasing the corporate tax rate within the EU.

Figure 1. Average Statuary Corporate Tax Rate by Region or Group

Growth of Digital Technology Companies in the EU

In the last decade, digital technology companies have significantly outperformed traditional brick-and-mortar companies. In 2006, only one digital technology company was among the top twenty companies in the EU, accounting for 7% of the market share among these high performers. Today, nine digital technology companies are in the top 20, accounting for a far more substantial 54% of market share.

Between 2008 and 2016, the revenue of the entire retail sector in the EU grew 1% on average. In the same period, the revenue of the top five e-retailers grew 32%. Yet, due to the virtual nature of business conducted by these digital technology companies, tax loopholes were invariably created, preventing many EU member states from collecting taxes on profits from such companies.

Difficulties in Taxing the Digital Economy

Unlike traditional companies, where profits are taxed at value creation, digital technology companies conduct most transactions electronically. This makes it challenging to capture where value is created, what it is, and how to measure it.

Additionally, companies are taxed through permanent establishment rules. The report published for the European Parliament and Council specifies that these rules are “used to determine the threshold of activity that needs to be carried out in a country in order for a business to be taxable in that country and are largely based on physical presence”. So, while digital technology companies operate virtually all over Europe, their profits are taxed only in the state where they have a physical establishment.

Last summer, France lost a case against Google, which has a “permanent establishment” in Ireland, and consequently did not have to pay a 1.11 billion Euro tax bill to France. The EC expressed concern regarding the fairness of this rule, arguing that such companies have access to markets, infrastructure and regulatory institutions all over the EU, but “are not considered present for tax purposes.”

The issue becomes more complex when considering that even when taxes are collected, the average tax rate for digital companies ends up being much lower than that for non-digital, traditional companies. The Centre for Economics and Business Research found that in the United Kingdom, Amazon pays 11 times less corporation tax than traditional booksellers. Differences on effective average corporate tax rates between digital technology companies and traditional ones, within the EU, are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Effective Average Corporate Tax Rate by Business Model in EU-28

The fact that there are different corporate tax rates in different EU member states is another implication. Differences in corporate tax rates indicate that states with lower rates might benefit more from the “permanent establishment” rules since many digital technology companies are physically headquartered there, as in the case of Ireland.  At 12.5%, Ireland offers one of the lowest corporate tax rates within the EU, as shown in Figure 3. Many digital giants have set up their headquarters in Ireland as it is also considered to have an overall better business environment. However, the EC has raised questions on the magnitude of benefits that these low tax-rate states receive from tax collection. Last year, the EC found that in 2014 Apple paid an effective tax rate of only 0.005% to Ireland, leaving an unpaid tax bill of around 13 billion Euros.

Figure 3. Corporate Tax Rates by EU Member States

In Defense of Digital Technology Companies

Arguably, the attitude of the European Commission, especially of Margrethe Vestager, who is the EU’s competition commissioner, has sometimes been described as openly belligerent against these digital giants. Some have argued that the changes in corporate tax policy outline would create a “hostile work environment” for US businesses. Uncertainties among consumers may also arise since such reforms could lead to changes in prices, which could directly affect consumers within the EU. Finance Ministers from Ireland and Luxembourg, who are not in support of proposed changes, have raised the issue of double taxation as another concern. Moreover, the framework of the international tax rules would need to be re-written in case different countries and regions start to neglect or redraw rules concerning permanent establishment or transfer pricing.

EU’s Policies Forward

The report released by the European Commission addresses some of the abovementioned concerns. While in the long run, the EU is planning to move towards an integrated Digital Single Market (DSM), where rules regarding digital economy would be harmonized among all EU member states through policies such as Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB) – “a single set of rules to calculate companies’ taxable profits in the EU,” as a short-term measure, the report suggests an “equalization tax on turnover of digitalized companies.” This, the EC believes, would address the issue of fairness within the EU member states, since taxes would no longer depend on “permanent establishment” but rather on “income generated from all internet-based business activities.”

Unlike traditional companies, digital companies already operate virtually all over the EU, while maintaining a “permanent establishment” in the countries with the lowest tax rates. Some believe that low tax rates helped states such as Ireland or even the UK, but as in the case of Apple in Ireland, even these countries do not always generate revenues from their already-low rates. Targeting digital technology companies would narrow the current gap in tax rates between these companies and non-digital, traditional companies.

Finally, we need to bear in mind that the EU is not the only region considering tax policy reforms for the digital economy. Along with numerous countries around the world, major international bodies such as the OECD have joined the discussion to resolve challenges of taxing the digital economy. Indeed, issues related to rules such as “permanent establishment” go beyond the EU borders. Although EU member states have not reached a consensus on joint policies forward—often a challenge in the EU—the need for reform regarding the taxation of the digital economy seems to be imperative at the global level today.

Edison Jakurti is a second-year Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) student at Duke University focusing on applied economics.

Medicare-for-all: A New Vote

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during an event to introduce the “Medicare for All Act of 2017” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

On September 13th, Bernie Sanders and 16 Democratic co-sponsors introduced the “Medicare for All Act of 2017” to establish a national health insurance program. Responses to the legislation, and its supporters, have ranged from praise to worry to scorn. Nobody expects the bill to pass. So should Democrats support this bill?

Supporters of the bill see the legislation as a way to focus the health care debate around universal coverage, rather than fixing Obamacare or “repeal-and-replace.” Pragmatic liberals, who may support universal health insurance, are worried there is not enough detail in Sanders’s legislation to demonstrate the feasibility of his plan. But Sanders has admitted his plan is meant to be a very rough draft – an opening bid.

Opponents are using the estimated cost of universal insurance coverage ($1.4 trillion per year) as another reason not to support the bill. Even Democratic legislators have expressed concern about the cost of universal coverage. Sen. Diane Feinstein recently told Politico she won’t support Medicare-for-all because “the cost is enormous.” Critics of the bill, however, are peddling an inconsistent argument. Some legislators who oppose the bill because of a lack of detail previously supported, and voted for, legislation introducing a high-cost program without specific details.

In 2002, 29 Democratic senators voted to send the United States to war in Iraq, despite the absence of a detailed plan. Depending on the source, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost between $1 trillion and $6 trillion dollars, which would have been enough to fund Sanders’s plan for approximately one to four years. Five Democratic senators, including Feinstein, who are currently not supporting the “Medicare-for-all” bill voted to approve the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), sending our country to war.

Our legislative history repeatedly shows that politicians ignore cost when they deem issues important. Another relevant example is the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), which 39 Democratic senators voted to pass. Despite the high price tag, politicians considered the bill vital in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, giving the Treasury Secretary broad leeway “to purchase troubled assets from any financial institution.”

Democrats need to put their reservations aside, as they have in the past, and support “Medicare-for-all.” If Democrats want to make national health insurance coverage mainstream, they need to visibly and repeatedly express support for the bill. Fox News and the Tea Party have succeeded in making more radical ideas mainstream by using discourse that consistently supports and familiarizes these ideas. Democrats should use this same tactic to build support for universal insurance coverage.

By making a significant, coordinated push to familiarize the public with universal health care coverage, Democrats can make a radical policy more socially acceptable in the future.

First-year Blake Rosser is a Master of Public Policy candidate interested in campaign finance reform and social justice.