Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Decision Theory and Debate

I am a decision researcher by trade and often times try to boil down a debate into issues instead of positions.

One of these times is the debate on welfare. Imagine a Two By Two matrix as shown below.

Needs WelfareNo Need
Gets WelfareGOODBAD
Doesn't Get ItBADGOOD

Everyone (I hope) can agree on that, depending on how you define "Needs", but once you agree on it (even most conservatives believe in "giving a hand up, not a hand out"), then you can get on to real issues.

In decision theory language, giving Welfare to someone who doesn't need it is a false positive, or a Type I error. Clearly, this is bad, since it is "wasting" tax payer resources that could go to better purposes.

Not providing welfare to someone who truly needs it is a false negative, or "Type II" error. This is also bad (if you believe in providing a hand up), since we are ignoring people in our society in need.

Here is the source (I believe) of a lot of debate. Which error is worse? Most progressives and liberals believe that the type II error is worse, in that failing to support someone who needs it goes against the "nurturant parent" model espoused by George Lakoff. I think (since I'm not really a conservative, but do speak with them) that most of them think that type I errors are worse (think Reagan's Food Stamp Lady Driving a Caddy).

So - I think all of us can agree that fraud is bad, the question boils down to what ratio is acceptable. How many fraudulent cases can we accept to make sure that people don't fall through the cracks? This is where a fundamental difference seems to arise.

If we can acknowledge that we have differing views on the relative "costs" of the two types of errors, we can work together to reduce BOTH of them, and all sides win.


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