Day 24: Thinking about trade offs & public policy

17/04/2020

Day 24

The days have begun to lose their sharp boundaries defined by everyday change and variety. Today is no different than yesterday – wake up, prepare for nowhere, coffee, news, cook meals, a couple of phone calls, webinars via zoom, coffee, dinner and sleep. This can be copy pasted for almost every day now. The end of these days is set for now – 3rd May. What is not known is when and how normal lives will get restored. The news these days is filled with lockdown exit, restoration of public services and protocols when the country emerges from the lockdown. Among people I speak to, the anxiety about the threat to their health and life seems to be reducing. It seems to have shifted to other things of everyday life – resuming work, stalled plans, travel etc.

For now, in India, we seem to have avoided the spectacle of death that has unfolded in other countries. We do not know of African countries and other lesser covered parts of the world because our news eyes are crowded by highly diverse, multi-perspective and multi-format news from the richer parts of the world. A trickle of information via regional news agencies and the UN suggests a serious situation in countries with weak state capacity. As for India, the state is a mammoth machinery. I believe we have managed to hold the pandemic from unleashing its destructive power through policing and brutality before reinforcing it with public health measures. 

The lockdown across the world is a useful time to understand choices and tradeoffs that societies are making. At its core, Public Policy as a subject is the study of tradeoffs between values in a society. The analyst’s job is to first identify the nature of trade offs involved. The global fight against Covid-19 has seen a wide range of value tradeoffs made by countries without articulating those values. For instance, Italy’s preference of triage system when their hospitals were overwhelmed with infected patients arriving in emergency. Indian government traded off its poor and working class in the name of national interest. Keeping the economy going instead of an indefinite lockdown is the common trade off situation that most countries have been negotiating in their own ways. 

Trade offs are central to economics. They are also central to the study of public policy. However, the difference in its pursuit by these two areas lies in what the analysis allows for and what it excludes. Perhaps, the promise of public policy as a subject lies in its inquiry that goes beyond a modelling exercise and allow for multi-disciplinary analysis of the origin, peculiarities and trajectory of how those values came about, on which a trade off situation has arisen.

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