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July 12, 2004

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Policy and Polemic

Kevin Drum gives The New York Times’ new temp columnist Barbara Ehrenreich a backhanded defense, saying basically that she’s sound and fury, signifying nothing, but eh, sometimes we need that:

At the same time, a simple (and frustrating) truth is that it is not people like Brad or me who change the world, it is people like Barbara Ehrenreich. Policy wonks then sigh, pick up the pieces, and try to convert the Ehrenreichian emotion of the moment into lasting programs. But without that emotion, we never get the chance.

From where I sit, policy wonks can do Ehrenreichian emotion pretty darn well sometimes. Am I the only who remembers the Declaration of Independence? (A quick refresher: that’s the one that accused the King of England of sending “swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” Oh, and also: “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”)

Ehrenreich recognizes that sweeping rhetoric used to be a big part of official policy, and she also uses the Declaration to make that point.

Drum’s contention that good architects of policy are just tremble and reserve gets at what I think is one of the biggest problems with our policy-makers today — no boldness. It’s partially because the country’s split on a partisan razor-edge, and any lurches left or right could be disastrous for a party. But the effect is that politicians make their trade in these sly, sneaky little slivers of policy to which the public pays no attention, but corporations love. FDR’s New Deal could never survive in this climate.

Historian H.W. Brands has made this argument much better than I could:

But Franklin would be dismayed by the popular denigration of politics, and exceedingly impatient with us for acting helpless in the face of problems that the Founders would have tackled at once. To take one example, arguments over the Second Amendment, with its almost certainly inadvertent ambiguity about the relation of militia service to gun ownership, would largely cease if we simply rewrote it. Gun advocates already treat the militia clause as a nullity; let them erase the clause—or try to. Gun opponents want the clause to govern gun ownership; let them rewrite the amendment—or try to. But almost no one suggests such an obvious solution to the problem. Instead we treat the Constitution as holy writ, to be parsed and glossed but not otherwise tampered with. We agonize over “original intent” as if what the Founders believed ought to determine the way we live two centuries later. They would have laughed, and then wept, at our timidity.

The one trait the Founders shared to the greatest degree is the one most worth striving after today—but also one that is often forgotten in the praise of their asserted genius. These men were no smarter than the best their country can offer now; they weren’t wiser or more altruistic. They may have been more learned in a classical sense, but they knew much less about the natural world, including the natural basis of human behavior. They were, however, far bolder than we are. When they signed the Declaration of Independence, they put their necks in a noose; when they wrote the Constitution, they embarked on an audacious and unprecedented challenge to custom and authority. For their courage they certainly deserve our admiration. But even more they deserve our emulation.

Posted July 12, 2004 at 11:13 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Snarkpolicy


Seriously -- where do we go for bold policy ideas?

The New America Foundation, which I love, seems mostly concerned with coming up with accounting tricks that will magically make everyone happy.

The Two Percent Solution? What is that? All we can do is fiddle with two percent of anything?

Of course, the whole point of The Two Percent Solution is that it's "Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love" -- which is perhaps what you need when, as Matt says, "the country's split on a partisan razor-edge."

So, fine. But what ever happened to big projects? The only time I still get excited about (or un-angry at) Tom Friedman is when he trots out his 'new Manhattan Project for renewable energy' idea, which is HOT. There have got to be other ideas like that floating around somewhere.

I want an Institute for Seemingly Unrealistic Policy, charged with coming up with stuff that seems like it could never happen (*cough* megacaucuses *cough*) but, you know, HEY, a lot of stuff once seemed like it could never happen. At the ISUP, if a policy idea seems immediately feasible, we don't waste our time with it; we e-mail that shiznat over to Brookings and then get back to work coming up with crazy stuff.

Posted by: Robin on July 13, 2004 at 09:44 PM

I know you're more interested in policy ideas, but from a more nerd perspective, I wonder if you're familiar with NIAC, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts?

Don't let the crappy website fool you; this is a cool organization and the site is fun to browse and see how many crazy ideas have been funded. I think WIRED had a pretty good overview of some of the more crazy-and-yet-ever-so-interesting grants.

Should also note that unfortunately this organization is considered by many to be in danger of funding cuts given the new adminstration's commitment to manned exploration.

Posted by: Peter on July 14, 2004 at 03:58 PM

Speaking of Seemingly Unrealistic Policy, I've been watching repeats of the HBO mini-series _From the Earth to the Moon_. There's nothing to get your civic- and science-nerd-o-meter up like seeing the stories behind the Gemini and Apollo missions from Tom Hanks (with Spielberg & Howard's magic shop at work).

I'm also reminded of an episode of _The West Wing_ (also good for a patriotic-but-in-a-lefty-way handjob when you need it) where Bartlet mulls over amending the State of the Union to announce that he'll direct the resources of the gov't to finding a cure for cancer within the next decade. (Kennedy's speech about landing a man on the moon is cited.)

Eventually, Bartlet is talked out of it, most decisively by Marlee Matlin's character who (in her adorable signing way) tells him that the government stinks at finding solutions to problems, especially medical ones. It's a failure of imagination that comes from a lack of the competition and incentives the market provides. Of course, the market's up to the challenge for a lack-of-imagination contest itself: just look at the pharmaceutical industry's flagship impotency drugs.

Government can be pretty imaginative when it comes to setting goals or identifying needs -- and sometimes they're the only body powerful enough to secure the needs of the whole, the less powerful, or of posterity -- but often fails in imagination when it comes to meeting them. Private enterprise is a stud at meeting needs, but not at imagining the full range of what our needs might be (it feeds us, titilates us, tries to give us what it thinks we want, or what tried-and-true research and experience has shown is profitable).

The magic happens when through some serendipity, the two come together. It happened with the space program: Kennedy's crazy dream and promise of putting a man on the surface of the moon captured public imagination (already whetted by competition with the USSR and the Mercury astronauts) and pumped billions of dollars into the private sector.

I started school in 1984, fifteen years after the Apollo moon landing: close enough that my proto-geeky fascination with all things astronomical makes a little more sense now, in retrospect. Twenty years since, it seems doubtful that something similar can happen again, but that's by no means ruling it out.

Altruism and greed can make for historical bedfellows: GWF Hegel called it "the cunning of reason." Someday, maybe whoever it was that figured out that you could make board members come in their pants if you diversified your project base and started using the word "energy" instead of "oil" to describe your company will win the Nobel Prize.

Posted by: Tim on July 19, 2004 at 12:51 AM
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