Thursday, February 26, 2009

Advice for young professors of public policy 

The conclusion first: When you speak before a legislative body, don't be cute with your presentation.

Yesterday a young assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota goes before a state senate committee meeting to argue for a bill that, inter alia, would set goals for the state to lower greenhouse gases by "reduc[ing] the number and length of vehicle trips" and by changing "development patterns". (Among other things, the bill proposes to have a 15% reduction in the number of vehicle miles traveled in Minnesota by 2025, and directs Met Council to come up with a plan to reduce driving in the Twin Cities to 1990 levels. Not a good bill if you favor commerce and markets, but that's another point.)

The professor favors this bill, and is brought in (I assume by its supporters) to testify. The StarTribune describes what happened when he spoke:
Dr. Julian Marshall of the University of Minnesota displayed a digital slide containing two versions of the historic ad.

The original ad is an illustration of a man driving a convertible and bears the slogan "When you ride ALONE, you ride with Hitler! Join a car-sharing club TODAY!" -- the idea being that a failure to conserve resources was aiding the German dictator, who was shown riding in the passenger seat.

The parody replaced Hitler with Osama bin Laden, a reference to oil-producing countries with ties to terrorism. It came from the cover of a 2002 book by the comedian Bill Maher, which was titled, "When You Ride Alone, You Ride with bin Laden: What the Government Should Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism."

"It's no secret that money spent on gasoline goes to places that are not very happy with us," Marshall said. "The issues we're talking about are all interconnected -- climate change, transportation, energy, geopolitics, climate security, energy security."
The STrib link contains the posters. You can also watch his introduction, and the reaction of Senators Dick Day and Juliann Ortman, here:
It's a classic rookie mistake. That slide is a slide that you'd certainly use in a classroom: It's provocative; using Bill Maher makes you seem cool to students; it challenges those who disagree with you to provoke a discussion. In a classroom, those are fine goals (assuming you use the provocation of the students to get them to engage your subject matter rather than as an opportunity to disrespect them. That's been known to happen, but there's no evidence that's an issue with this young man.) But a legislative hearing is not a classroom. I've done a couple of those, and you have to be very sensitive to not give the other side of your issue an opening. The young professor risked being stopped before he could get past the first slide (the chair of the committee has to permit him to continue, as you see at the end of the video.)

If you are from a school of public policy, or work generally in public policy, you should know that, or get advice from a senior faculty member who's learned it. But again, this young fellow is in a department of mechanical engineering. Not exactly a breeding ground for public policy wonks. Who put this fellow on the list to provide testimony? Did he? Or did one of the bill's authors? If the latter, it's their mistake for putting him in harm's way.

There's a time and a place for cute, a time and place for provocation. But that place is not a Senate hearing. Hope he learns his lesson.

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