Evan Soltas
Apr 12, 2013

The Anecdote Gap

U.S. Senator Jerry Moran opened the Kauffman Foundation's Annual Economic Bloggers Forum with a short video address. And how he did so captured a critical gap between politics and policymaking.

Moran told the story of Asaf Darash, an Israeli entrepreneur who wanted to found a tech startup in the United States. When the entrepreneur did not receive a visa, Moran said, he was forced to relocate his business and his jobs to Israel. The story of this entrepreneur makes the case for high-skilled immigration reform, he said.

It was in many ways a conventional story -- the kind one hears in political debate on a daily basis. Personal anecdote substitutes for policy, for data, for cross-sectional evidence. President Barack Obama, for example, closed his most recent State of the Union with several profiles of Americans whose lives would be improved by his proposed agenda.

Moran urged writers to use the power of anecdote to fuel policy discussion. Anecdote, Moran said, has a unique visceral influence over politicians and media. Data does not. (A video is not yet available.)

Whatever the opposite of speaking to the choir is, that is what Moran was doing this morning. Data, not anecdote, drives conversation among econbloggers. Much of the community emerged explicitly as an alternative to traditional, anecdote-driven political dialogue.

Moran's comments, in fact, speak to a larger problem in politics in general, and a significant obstacle to policymaking today: When Washington can't tell a story about something, it ignores it. Data alone doesn't make good politics.

This warps the policy debate in very real ways. First, anecdote can be entirely wrong. Many American workers are convinced that immigrants displace them from low-wage work. The data show rather conclusively, however, that domestic and foreign workers are complements in the labor market, not substitutes. These misperceptions have an awful tendency of making their way into public policy.

But there's a more subtle, more problematic pathway by which the political lurch to anecdote undermines the opportunity for better public policy. Many of the nation's problems simply don't make good stories -- or they can't be put into narrative form at all.

How, for example, would you give an anecdote about how the mortgage-interest deduction creates inefficient distortions in shelter spending or fixed investment? A politician can't hold up the life story of Joe Urban and talk about all the ways he would have been better off in a counterfactual.

Just because public policy topics might be boring, dry, or unsuited to anecdote doesn't make them unimportant. But it does make them go unaddressed.