Special Topics Course: Formal Models of Policy Analysis

Prof. Doug Noonan provides this information about the Special Topics course (PUBP 4803 DN) he’s teaching this fall.

What are formal models? No, you won’t find them on the catwalks in Milan. Formal models are what we use to distinguish a rigorous theory of public policy from fuzzy, informal explanations. Bold assertions (e.g., “only rain can solve our drought problem”) are everywhere, but it’s often difficult to know what logic and assumptions were used to reach someone’s conclusions. Formal models put those assumptions out in plain view.

For example, it seems reasonable that “seatbelts save lives,” especially if we assume that, holding all else equal, people wearing seatbelts are safer. But what if we relax that assumption and speculate that drivers respond to their newfound safety by driving a bit more riskily? Then we might expect more accidents and more innocent victims. In fact, seatbelts might not save lives once we change the ground rules in our model of safety features, driver behavior, and fatalities.

Formal models are useful in understanding the world around us, particularly when we need to understand complex situations. In this course we will learn about a variety of classic formal models, and we’ll custom-build some as well. These will become tools in your toolkit as a policy analyst. You’ll get practice applying these tools to a variety of situations. We will develop the tools together, then you will apply them to contexts of your choosing. Want to study presidential elections? Sustainability? Digital music, outsourcing, panhandlers, avatars — or Milan catwalks? We can do all of these. We develop the “formal model” tools. You apply them.

Within the first month of the course, you will be able to explain why Ron Howard and Russell Crowe — despite their Oscars — got it wrong when they had John Nash tell us that everyone’s best strategy is to avoid the blonde in the pub. In fact, by the end of the course you’ll be able to offer simple proofs about how recycling paper destroys forests, why group projects are doomed, how patent law stifles innovation, why faster chairlifts create longer queues on ski hills, how winner-take-all games pervade society (e.g., presidential elections, competitive R&D funding, American Idol) with potentially tragic consequences, how a little knowledge can be a very bad thing in politics, how anti-sprawl policies actually might make urban sprawl much worse, how banning polygamy harms women, and other topics.

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