Thursday, August 16, 2007

Public Relations and the Modern Academic

Suppose you went to the Harvard Economics Department or the Kennedy School and you surveyed senior faculty asking them how much time a week do they talk to reporters, what would the average be? Would the mean be lower if you surveyed Yale's Economics Department? If so, why?

With the rise of popular books and popular blogs, many academics are raising their popular profile and there appears to be infinite demand for our witty quotes in the popular media.

Public relations is a fascinating topic. In today's New York Times Arts section, Patricia Cohen has a piece titled "Backlash over book on policy for Israel". John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have guts. They are about to experience an old fashion beatdown. How do you go about quantifying which interest groups are powerful? What is their counter-factual for testing their claim about the power of the "Israel Lobby"? If we are addicted to oil and the oil is in the Middle East, why hasn't "self interest" led us to ditch Israel? I mention public relations here because it will be fascinating to hear how these fancy academics speak to the media and make their politically incorrect case for their ideas. What national debate could it start? Will Hilary Clinton wave this book around at the next debate? Will she stand on 9 of them to look taller when she debates Big Fred Thompson?

Since I will return to Boston for 1 week and won't be blogging, I thought I'd leave you with UCLA's public relations take on a new paper of mine. UCLA has a great public relations crew and here is a good example of what they do.

Environmental Shocks Reduce Likelihood of
Pro-Green Votes by Members of Congress

Conventional wisdom holds that environmental disasters lead Congress to toughen regulatory standards. But a new UCLA study has found that members of Congress were less likely to vote pro-green positions in the wake of catalytic events than for other environment-related legislation during the same period.

The reason? Legislation following environmental disasters is typically written by those with strong pro-environment voting records who propose more radical legislation. , such legislation often/tends to over-reaches, leading moderates and anti-environmentalists to vote against such bills.

“Environmental disasters polarize the Congress; they’re not uniting Congress,” said Matthew E. Kahn, a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment. “Environmental disasters give environmentalists the upper hand by changing the parameters of debate. In the aftermath of a shock such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the news media provide extensive coverage, members of Congress know that voters expect them to ‘do something, and environmentalists are aware that they may be able to enact ‘greener’ legislation. The polluter faces a nasty public relations problem and must decide how to lobby the Congress and the people to minimize the extra regulation it faces due to the event.

“The result,” Kahn said, “is often legislation that goes too far and turns off those who had taken the pro-environment position on other legislation in the same year.”

Kahn’s research is published in the August edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of Risk Uncertainty.

Kahn, an environmental economist who writes frequently about the costs and benefits of environmental regulation, detailed the voting records of U.S. House of Representatives members on 380 pieces of environmental legislation from 1973-2002. He utilized League of Conservation Voters records to identify significant legislation and whether a yes or no vote was considered pro-environment. He then compared those votes with the votes on 15 bills proposed in the aftermath of five well-known environmental disasters:

• Love Canal, New York. In 1978, President Carter declared a state of emergency near an industrial and chemical waste landfill after residents complained of high cancer rates, birth defects and other health problems and state officials found elevated levels of contaminants in the air and soil.

• Three Mile Island. The partial meltdown of a reactor at a nuclear power plant in Middletown, Penn., on March 28, 1979, was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history, although there were no deaths or injuries among plant workers in neighboring communities.

• Bhopal, India. A Union Carbide pesticide factory plant sprang a leak on Dec. 3, 1984, releasing thousands of gallons of highly toxic gas that killed more than 2,000 people.

• Chernobyl. On April 25-26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear power accident at a plant 80 miles north of Kiev, in what is now Ukraine, killed more than 30 people immediately and force the evacuation of some 135,000 people in a 20-mile radius.

• Exxon Valdez. On March 24, 1989, a tanker spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

All five events received extensive coverage in the news media, and Congress significantly increased the number of hearings to consider legislation – key elements of a “shock” that shapes public debate.

“I found that the average representative reduced his or her pro-environment voting propensity on catalytic bills relative to his her pro-environment voting record in the same calendar year on non-catalytic bills,” said Kahn, who holds a joint appointment in the UCLA Department of Economics. Kahn emphasized that the environmental shocks didn’t lead to reduced regulation, only a reduction in the propensity of individuals to vote the pro-environment position on the key bills identified by the League of Conservation Voters.

Love Canal was associated with the greatest increase in pro-environment votes and the greatest increase in regulatory activity, while the other events led to relatively minor expansion of regulatory programs. This may be explained by the sheer number of hazardous waste sites in the United States and the ineffectiveness of fines or other incentives to prevent contamination that had already occurred. Hence, the post-Love Canal creation of the massive Superfund program requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to rank sites for cleanup. In contrast, Chernobyl had little impact on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, perhaps due to the limited number of nuclear power plants in this country.

“These five cases highlight that regulatory growth is least likely to take place after shocks when there are relatively few polluters who need to be regulated, such as power plants, or when existing profit-maximizing firms such as oil companies and manufacturing plants can be encouraged to alter their behavior based on credible fines or fear of social sanction,” Kahn said.

Nevertheless, Kahn said, the research has significant implications regarding the potential effect of well-publicized, non-environmental shocks, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis and consumer product recalls. He urged further research.

“If more ambitious risk regulation is voted on in the aftermath of shocks, does it raise the likelihood of more socially inefficient regulation being adopted as passions flare?” Kahn said. “Alternatively, do such shocks raise the likelihood of socially beneficial regulations being enacted because they helped diffused interest groups to work together against the tightly organized polluters?”