The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Sunday, 07 March 2010]

The car must be blue

Policy must support the vision you have for society—it's a means to an end, not the end itself.

Politics is all about vision—how you want society to function, the values you bring to your efforts. Specific policies, on the other hand, are nothing more than a means to reach that vision. And yet, somehow, we’re at a point today in American politics where policies have become dogma, and vision has disappeared behind their haze. I don’t see a vision of how society should be from the current crop of politicians. I see policy torn from results, policy elevated to end-result.

An obvious example is tax policy. To take an especially common example: We must have lower taxes. Why? Because lower taxes are better. How are they better? Because then I pay less taxes. OK. So what public services do you want to fund with your taxes? Military? Education? Police? Transit? What do you want society to look like? Perhaps your vision of how society should look doesn’t need a large tax base to work. In that case, fair enough. But let’s say you want a strong military and you want low taxes. A strong military costs a lot of money—in America’s case about 4% of GDP. So how strong do you want the military? If you figure out what you want the end result to be, then work backwards to the policies—in this case, tax rates—you will find a policy that supports your vision.

In other words, you have to figure out where you want to go, then find the roads that lead there, and you have look at where you actually ended up when you took the roads you thought would get you there. Did that road take me to the coast? No? Then find another. Rinse and repeat.

At this point it feels like we’re in a situation where two people are trying to plan a road trip:

“So let’s either go to Alaska or Arizona.”

“The car must be blue.”

“We have to decide if the road trip is to Alaska or Arizona.”

“The car must be blue.”

“But where do you want to go? You want to go to Alaska or Arizona? They’re very different.”

“Only a blue car can take us there. White cars are socialist.”

“OK. Sure. Blue car it is. Fine. But what kind of car? SUV? Roadster? And if we go to Alaska we’re going to have to get snow tires.”

“The car must be blue. I’m an excellent driver. Yeah, definitely an excellent driver.”

And on and on like a play where Beckett lost his everloving mind.

What we need in America today for a healthy debate is for politicians to state their goals. What kind of society do they want to create? And platitudes like “a strong America” or “a just society” or “a land of freedom” simply do not count. Those are clichés, not visions. What do you want? What kind of society?

Do you want a strong army? Why? Strong education? Who’s going to pay for it? Do you want dependence on oil? Why? Why not? More police? Who’s going to pay for them?

What is the vision? What the hell do you want?

If I have to sit through a whole election cycle again with nothing but policies divorced from end-goals and a media that doesn’t want to even ask the question I’m going to scream.

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