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Issue No. 120-a (January 2009) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Revesz's numbers-crunching meets Hamilton's meta-frameworking
I. Don’t ignore the
Richard Revesz, one of the world’s leading experts in environmental and regulatory law, and now dean of the New York University School of Law, noticed something disturbing during his time as an advisor to the EPA and other regulatory bodies. He noticed that environmentalists and other activists rarely chose to testify when hearings focused on hard numbers, and especially when debates centered on cost-benefit analysis (CBA).
That is no small matter. As Guy Peters points out in his ubiquitous textbook, American Public Policy, CBA is the “principal method of policy analysis used when making policy choices [in Washington]. . . . The fundamental principle of cost-benefit analysis is that any project undertaken should produce a benefit for society greater than the cost of the project.” If you can’t make that argument, you won’t persuade legislators or administrators no matter how virtuous you think you are.
At first Revesz was nonplussed. How could environmentalists and other activist supporters of innovative government regulations simply bow out of the most significant part of debates over regulations?
But after speaking with activists over many years, he determined the cause – or rather, several causes. Some feel incompetent with numbers and are happier sharing anecdotes. Others feel CBA is immoral – how can you put numbers on the value of a human life? And still others feel CBA is rigged to always favor greedy businesses and polluters.
One of the great things about being a law school dean – particularly a tireless and compassionate one – is that it gives you tremendous power to make things right. So Revesz and Michael Livermore, long a leading voice of the New York environmental community, have just written a book that belongs on the shelves of every activist who ever wanted to promote an innovative public policy to legislators and other skeptical Americans. The title says it all, Retaking Rationality: How Cost-Benefit Analysis Can Better Protect the Environment and Our Health (Oxford University Press, 2008).
And they’ve gone further. They’ve created the Institute for Policy Integrity specifically “to implement the vision described in the book.”
That vision comes in two parts. First, the book demonstrates that CBA can and should be used to argue for creative, pro-regulatory public policies (“exercising our compassion most effectively . . . requires us to step back and use our best analytic tools. Sometimes, in order to save a life, we need to treat a person like a number”).
Second, and just as important, the book shows how CBA – distorted over many years as a result of the abdication of activists and other cultural creatives – can be subtly reformulated, in practice, in order to keep it from serving as a tool for the selfish and the short-term oriented.
Eight reformulations are suggested. Among them: Don’t fall for the fallacy that all unintended consequences are bad. “In order to be balanced, CBA must acknowledge the ancillary benefits of regulations as well.”
II. Don’t ignore the
Marilyn Hamilton would almost certainly agree with Revesz and Livermore about the need to do cost-benefit analysis when you’re trying to sell legislators (or administrators, or taxpayers) on costly new solutions. She is an explicitly “integral” thinker and feels there’s a time and place for every positive contribution to the evolution of our species. Besides, she’s a former accountant.
But she would almost certainly add that there’s much more to know before making appropriate decisions!
How much more there is to know is the theme of her book, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive (New Society, 2008). Ostensibly, it’s about cities as “living systems,” metaphorically the equivalent of bee hives. At the same time, it’s a demonstration of the power and scope and use-value of “integral” or “whole systems” thinking.
And what a demonstration! The book left me with vertigo. If you ever wondered what writers like Don Beck and Jane Jacobs and Rupert Sheldrake and Ken Wilber and Robert Wright have been getting at all these years, here it is in thunder.
Everything is connected in Hamilton’s book, from values
and riverbeds and schools to cats and health care and (of course) city residents
themselves; and the more you read the more connected you’ll discover they are
. . . and the more implicated you’ll discover you are.
Here are some of the chapter titles, to give you a sense of Hamilton’s
You can hardly jog around the block from Hamilton’s perspective without affecting innumerable systems. Read her book carefully enough and you’ll be conscious ALL THE TIME. Certainly you’ll never think about urban politics again without being intensely sensitive to all the forces at play, from the most mundane to the most cosmic.
That was apparently her hope. “This book assumes that city structures and infrastructures arise from and connect to the natural systems of global ecology,” she writes. “But I want to explore the dynamics of the city’s internal human ecology [as well]. . . . My research shows me that effective city leadership requires an understanding of [such] dynamics.”
III. Both / and
I am glad Dean Revesz is promoting (an unusually depthful version of) cost-benefit analysis to activists and other cultural creatives. But I am equally glad that Marilyn Hamilton is promoting (an unusually depthful version of) integral thinking to urban planners, lawyers, professors, policy analysts, legislators, and other Revesz types. We need persuasive numbers, but we need persuasive maps of connectedness too.
You can read overviews of the authors' ideas by the authors themselves online.
For Revesz & Livermore, see Richard Revesz, "Cost-Benefit Environmentalism," Gristmill: The Environmental News Blog, 8 May 2008.
For Hamilton, see Jordan MacLeod, "Evolving in the City: An Interview with Integral City Author Dr. Marilyn Hamilton," Integral Leadership Review, October 2008. (An audio version can be accessed via Hamilton's Integral City website.)
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