Category Archives: Op-Ed

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.

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.

Wage Gap vs. Earnings Gap

Source: CNN Money

Source: CNN Money

There are multiple pieces online from prominent publications dispelling the “myth” of the wage gap. Articles from Forbes, The Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal discuss the wage gap as though it’s a dubious statistic and suggest that men and women’s pay are ostensibly equal for equal work.

If they are to be believed, then it’s only taken 53 years since the passing of the Equal Pay Act to reach a point of income parity. But this premise is false, and the true state of affairs is that the wage gap is painfully real. The reality is that women’s median income for full-time positions is $40,742 while full-time jobs for men earn them a median income of $51,212. The wage gap between men and women currently sits at women earning 79.5 cents to every $1.00 earned by men.

The good news is that the wage gap has steadily decreased since 1960. While 79.5 percent is better than 56 percent, any gap at all is still unsatisfactory. But what explains this difference? Continue reading

The changing landscape of U.S. electric utilities

econf-squareAt the annual Duke University Energy Conference yesterday, I had the opportunity to hear four women – all holding top management positions in the energy industry – speak about the evolution of electric utilities in the United States. Having worked in the energy sector prior to graduate school, I have been to my fair share of energy conferences. This is the first time I have attended an all female panel on energy that was not featured as a diversity event.

The change in the demographic make-up of the panel itself is analogous to the dramatic changes we’re seeing in the changing landscape of electricity today. While the electricity sector in the U.S. still operates as it has for the last several decades – with investor-owned utilities, municipalities, and rural electric cooperatives running the show – today’s utilities are still facing political, social, and economic environments like we have never seen before.
Continue reading

HOTMA Expands Opportunities for Low-Income Families

hud-logoLow-income families have historically struggled to access low-poverty neighborhoods through federal housing programs. They have been challenged by a number of barriers, from transportation to discrimination, and have been left with no other alternative but to move into areas of concentrated poverty. But with HOTMA, there is hope.

H.R. 3700, the Housing and Opportunity through Modernization Act of 2015 (HOTMA), has unanimously passed both the House and the Senate. President Obama is expected to sign this bill that updates several components of the nation’s low-income housing programs. Among other changes, the bill boosts an effective tool to serve low-income families: project-based vouchers. Continue reading

Can WhatsApp be used for policy innovations in developing countries?


When I was traveling through the gorgeous and remote Kerala Backwaters in India last year, I met a bright teenage entrepreneur named Amit, from the local fishing village. He owns three canoes, which he uses as taxis to transport locals and tourists from village to village. This story is as old as time, except for one thing: it was 2015, and his business depended entirely on the popular messaging app WhatsApp.

Amit uses WhatsApp to coordinate with his employees (other young men from his village), who operate his canoes in the area. He also pushes messages about canoe rates and locations to a growing list of customers (he believes he can find enough customers to invest in more canoes). Even as I finished my canoe ride, Amit made sure that we were connected — just in case I had friends coming to the area. “Hey bro, make sure you add me on WhatsApp.” Always hustling.

Continue reading