Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Policy: It's Like Making a Cake

For some time now, I've been writing a weekly column for an LGBT blog. My column, Dispatches from Left Field appears on Wednesdays on The New Gay. I write on a variety of subjects there and my content is not limited to LGBT issues, although I do try to focus on topics of interest to the gay community. This post was written for TNG, but has been cross-posted here because of its relevance.

A new administration has come to Washington. After eight long years of Republican control of the executive branch, Democrats under the leadership of President Barack Obama are taking over. In that regard I'd like to consider the implications of policymaking.

If you’ve ever baked a cake, you know that a successful recipe depends upon getting all of the ingredients right. If any of the parts are spoiled or if any of the incorrect ingredients are mixed in, the cake won’t turn out the way you intended. Policy is the same way.

There is often a lot of talk about Education Policy or Transportation Policy or Environmental Policy. These are all red herrings. In reality there is only one Policy (capital P). Now I know this sounds strange. I can hear you saying, “of course there is such a thing as Education Policy,” and you’d be right. There is something called Education Policy. It’s how we address schools and curriculum, among other things. But it is often doomed to fail by other policy areas, Transportation and Housing Policies for instance. This is because the way we view policy (lower case p) divides public policies into silos. Essentially, we insist on continuing to think of the egg as an egg, even long after it's become part of the cake.

If for example, we’re baking a cake (Policy) which seeks to further the aims of a chef (administration), it would include ingredients such as eggs (Education), flour (Transportation), sugar (Environment), and much, much more. Even if the eggs are fresh, the cake might turn out badly if we forget to include the flour.

Let’s consider Education in more detail. Our last President pushed for a bill called No Child Left Behind. This act was to improve our education system by doing things like punishing underperforming schools, offering choice, and holding teachers accountable. It placed lots of emphasis on standardized tests and other measures such as attendance and graduation rates. But schools are in largely the same shape they were eight years ago. Why didn’t No Child Left Behind significantly change schools?

For simplicity’s sake, let’s forgo the criticisms of the Act itself. Instead I would like to focus on how other Policy areas affect educational outcomes. Studies show that neighborhood poverty has a huge impact on educational attainment. But because we have “silos” for policy, fixing neighborhoods, while integral to fixing schools, is not considered part of Education Policy. In that regard, we’re leaving out part of the recipe.

When it comes to Education, we’ve been dooming urban schools since the 1930s at least. Many of the same things that created the Gayborhood contributed to the decline of our schools. Housing Policy encouraged suburban housing construction, while covenants limited that development to whites. Transportation Policy, beginning in the 1950s, gave (white, middle-class) Americans the ability to leave the city, while still being able to commute over freeways to work. At the same time the destruction of urban transit systems split many lower income people from their jobs. As policy decisions in other policy areas encouraged the creation of urban ghettos, our schools started a nosedive which they’ve yet to recover from. Just last week, I saw that school segregation is increasing in the United States.

I don’t want to belabor the discussion on education, however. My thinking about this Policy/Cake concept started when the Obama Administration left the Secretary of Transportation off of his Green Team. This group of high-level officials consists of the Energy Czar, Secretary of Energy, Director of the EPA, and the Secretary of the Interior. And while these department heads certainly run agencies which have a large role to play in solving the climate change dilemma; without seriously changing the way we approach transportation, we won’t be able to stop greenhouse gas accumulation.

According to Growing Cooler a report on the relationship between urban development and climate change, "Transportation accounts for a full third of CO2 emissions in the United States" (page 2). This report refers to the "Three-legged Stool" of Fuel Economy, Carbon Content of Fuel, and Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). Any policy that fails to address all three legs of the stool will fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions far enough to reach targets. Because the Department of Energy projects that increases in VMT will outstrip improvements in fuel economy and carbon content, any emissions savings from those two legs will be outpaced by increases from the third leg, VMT.

So even if we are able to transition cars to cleaner sources of fuel and make them more efficient, we can really only solve the problem by encouraging walkable communities and public transit in addition. Luckily, this reimagining of the urban environment gives us the opportunity to rethink the selfsame policies (like housing) which have resulted in a failing education system and a gridlocked transportation network.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. once said:
"The best cure for destructive sprawl is to build cities people don't want to abandon, places where they can live healthy, fulfilling lives in densities that don't devour our landscapes, pave our wilderness and pollute our watersheds, air, and wildlife. To achieve this, we need to invest in urban schools, transportation, parks, health care, police protection, and infrastructure that makes cities great magnets with gravity sufficient to draw back the creeping suburbs."

In other words, in order to save the city, we have to focus on all of the relevant policy areas--from Education to Transportation. We can't confine our Policy to just one silo.

I’m reminded of an example from Atlanta. As the region was building a MARTA (metro) extension to the Northeast, the Georgia DOT was widening the adjacent gridlocked Interstate 85. Not surprisingly, ridership on the Doraville train never reached what planners had hoped. Here in Washington, on the other hand, a series of freeway battles helped ensure that Metro would be successful by limiting freeway construction. So while Mr. Obama has promised transit investment during the next few years, he has also promised road building. And his stimulus gives more money to roads. One wonders if his Policy (capital P) will be end up truly being “green” or if policy silos will leave the frosting off the cake.


Glenn said...


Love your blog, and it inspired me to create one of my own ( But it's been a while since we've seen a post from you- I'm in withdrawal! Hope you are well and look forward to reading your next post.


selina said...

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