Politics today, even in the most developed countries, is undoubtedly difficult. This is easily seen here in the United States given the current budget battle and sequestration holding the US economy hostage — the latter an ironic byproduct and continuation of a prior budget stalemate. Opposite sides of the political spectrum have never been so far apart and any discussion of politics always tends to center around how divisive today’s climate has become. And yet, amidst the constant back and forth, we may have lost sight of something truly important and fundamental — a thorough understanding of what we are actually fighting for. Arguments over important issues, such as gun control and economic reform, have been oversimplified and policy options seemed to have narrowed. Political strategists and paid entertainers, feeding off the combative environment, have become primary sources of knowledge. Sound bites, hash-tags and Twitter feeds are now dominant parts of the dialogue.
The reality, however, is that these issues are by nature extraordinarily complex in theory and in practice, within democracies of any size. Intuitive and ideological approaches are often not enough and in many cases, don’t work the way in which the public is led to believe.
Take gun control, one of the most controversial subjects at the moment. Much of the debate has revolved around some sort of ban on assault weapons. Intuitively, it makes sense as a central component of reform and thus the 1994 ban signed during the Clinton administration — the “Brady Law” —, often cited by current advocates, seems like a reasonable and effective goal. The John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research indicates otherwise, calling it a necessary foundation but insufficient and citing a widely published study that concluded the law did not actually affect homicide and suicide rates. Another primary talking point has been the need for universal background checks. Again, a measure seemingly necessary but the act of the background check is only one part of the total screening process. The database, for example, which is the foundation on which the background checks is based, has been reported as inadequate, porous and itself will take much effort and cooperation to fix.
A look at other major policy debates right now raises more questions within the mainstream debate. The fiscal tightening approach to solving the very high public debt levels in the economy has been seen as fundamental to an extent by both parties. But does it work, especially during these difficult economic times? According to a recent IMF report, this approach may actually increase debt-levels in the short-term and have negative implications for growth.
Climate change has also visibly become a growing post-election issue based on President Obama’s rhetoric and recent plans that include clean energy as the focus. However, one of the most extensive research projects on climate change — led by a former leading climate change skeptic — argues that while humans are the proven, principal cause of current global warming, what the United States does from now is a moot point. Although positive actions can be taken, the dangerous rise in global emissions is inevitable unless China and developing countries reform their current emissions path.
And health care — although not being targeted with the sweeping reforms that most hope for, it is a field ripe with innovation and entrepreneurial ideas. One of the most highly touted is Pay For Performance, or P4P, a popular example of a private sector concept with that incentivizes good performance by doctors. Again though, significant voices in the field, including prominent physicians and health economists with access to a host of on-the-ground experience and data, are critical that there are currently several loopholes and P4P does not target the root problem of health-care spending.
These are not meant to be put-downs of certain policies but instead examples of essential perspectives from valid and informed stakeholders. We need to think twice, maybe even three times, when it comes to politics. The challenge and purpose of policy-making and governing is not only about winning, getting votes or signing bills but also the process of creating, implementing, monitoring and continuously adapting policies and measures in the most rigorous way. Being continuously analytical and going beyond the rhetoric and political associations allows the best chance for progress in a society that is ever-complicating with greater opportunities and challenges.
Shamir Tanna is a contributing columnist. Email him at [email protected]