Policy Design Space Awareness

Let's copy other countries y'all

In game design, there is a space of ideas to explore, parameters that you can change to make the game different, more "fun" or rewarding, or more addicting.

In Magic: The Gathering, a famous collectible card game by company Wizards of the Coast, your deck is made up of a limited number of "spells" and "lands." There are five mana colors that spells can be -- white, blue, black, red, and green -- which require different corresponding land types to play. Putting more "swamp" cards in your deck lets you play more black cards, "forest" cards allow you to play green cards, "island" cards for blue, and so on.

Additionally, cards cost multiple lands to use, and you can only play one land per turn, meaning that a card that costs 2 "mana" can usually only be played on your second turn, a 3 mana card on your third turn, etc.

The natural balance here is that focusing on one color of mana reduces your ability to successfully focus on another. It is more common historically for a player's deck to be focused on 2 or 3 colors, and this constraint extends from the game designers, who must think about how to balance the design of cards such that playing any given color is attractive to a new player, that cards aren't too hard or too easy to play (printing a very good card with too low or permissive a mana cost is a famously easy way to ruin a given metagame).

What makes Magic great is that because there is an easily grokkable design space for the game, there is a feedback loop between designers and players -- it is easy for players past the novice stage to discuss the design choices in the game and opine on how those choices have affected their playing experience.

For just 3 mana and 2 different colors a card that completely takes over the game like Oko, Thief of Crowns might not be a good idea to print. Maybe it should've been 4 mana. Maybe it should've been 4 mana and 3 colors. Players and data have signalled that this card was a mistake to print, Wizards of the Coast responded by banning it from the relevant metagames, and they haven't printed a card as busted as that since.

Americans have a less healthy relationship with the feedback loop of public policy design. My feeling is that most Americans have no idea which levers can be pulled to improve a given outcome. Americans agree traffic is bad; I think few have more than a vague idea of how they might expect a representative to improve it or pay for those improvements.

When Americans are aware of levers, they tend to be conditioned by cultural software to see moving that lever in a potential direction as completely good or bad. How many times have you had a conversation with someone who acknowledged that raising taxes is sometimes a tough-but-effective way to align incentives or a worthwhile way to fund some particular programs? Outside of interaction with a sort of Very Online neoliberal or left-leaning policy wonk, this almost never seems to be the case. (It's hard to say whether the Libertarian mind-virus that "all government is bad and all taxes are especially bad" is the cause or effect of this kind of thinking. But even outside of hardcore self-described libertarians, this attitude is common.)

Imagine a world in which Magic: The Gathering players have been trained to believe that the only way to make cards better is to make their mana costs cheaper or fewer colors. That's the world Americans live in with regards to taxes.

The notion of taxes as a design lever are fairly easy to understand on a base level, which makes their total demonization all the more deplorable. But some of our societal problems are because the systems involved have opaque design systems.

Take healthcare. We have all the issues related to raising taxes to pay for it, mixed in with an utterly incomprehensible set of incentives happening behind the scenes, involving insurance, point-of-care providers, drug research companies and device manufacturers. The design system itself is difficult to understand; so many Americans generally revert back to their tried-and-true tribal analysis of "more government bad" or "you're evil if you don't want people to have healthcare."

If you don't understand the alternatives, you cannot advocate for them. This applies even to problems that one might consider less complex than healthcare. Take urban planning policies related to issues like public transit and parking. Automobile use dominates much of American life, especially in cities in which the investment and culture are not supportive of public transportation. It's hard for me to believe that an American, particularly a millennial, fully aware of alternative city designs (Amsterdam, Berlin, Tokyo, etc.) and their resultant lifestyles, would choose to have their city be a car-first trafficfest in which amenities are spread further apart, traffic fatalities are triple (or more) other developed countries, along with all of the mandatory expense and hassle of owning and maintaining a vehicle for everyday use.

Americans should try and understand the design space of policies that affect their lives. I don't mean that they should attempt to creatively invent wholly unique solutions for all of their problems; rather they should minimally be aware of the extent to which other nations have already solved these problems and leapfrog into the future by learning from them and innovating on top of them. There are some encouraging signs of this happening -- even here in supposedly-conservative Texas, with partnerships with Japanese bullet train companies -- but I think there's room for it to happen more broadly and explicitly.