Simple questions punch holes in public policy agenda
I have long maintained that a person can bring down a load of really interesting trouble by posing completely reasonable questions. We live amid so many distortions of value in the public realm that constant re-evaluation of public belief is an exercise essential for our personal sanity.
The prominent 19th century writer, Gustave Flaubert, once organized a dictionary of platitudes in 19th century France. Back in my early Vienna life in the 1980s, I owned a hard-cover copy of that book. The book — as I remember now with great fondness — was a collection of conversational clichés, loony beliefs, public misconceptions and fixed ideas. I loved to browse through it for its irreverence toward the public mind.
The specific public platitudes may have changed since Flaubert’s time, but meanwhile other public misconceptions have taken their place. My latest list of public policy platitudes is very lengthy. Here are just a few of them exposed by some straightforward questions:
One idea that underlies so much of the debate about economic development is the notion that providing tax breaks and public grants to private businesses will create large numbers of good jobs that will automatically make our regional communities more stable.
But is this really going prove true? Or is this just a pretense for private interests to dip into the public coffers?
And what about the uncritical belief that New York state taxes are so high that businesses and corporations are justified in abandoning local communities in return for tax breaks in other tax jurisdictions? Moreover, does a corporation really have a justifiable public right — outside a public legal system — to export jobs out of communities such as Fort Edward and Schenectady and Amsterdam just because the ego of a non-resident CEO thinks it is a good short-term management tactic? And anyway, aren’t most of the leadership “teams” at the average corporation by and large comprised of temporarily hired executives with no real loyalty to the corporation whose short-term interests they choose to serve?
Here today, gone tomorrow to some sunny golf course in Somewhereland.
On the state level, policy is driven by some highly questionable fixed ideas: Is it realistic, for instance, that a governor who takes money from gambling interests while promoting an expansion of gambling could ever really be a serious candidate for the presidency? Many major Cuomo Administration policies continue to unfold as if the man really thinks he has a legitimate chance to be president someday. Is that illusion a good basis for a responsible governor to conduct public policy?
Amid the controversy about New York state public education, another questionable fixed idea stands out, an idea that has driven liberal education policy for nearly three decades: Is it really reasonable to assume that all adolescents come to school willing to learn, and if only caring adults bend basic standards to meet the “real” needs of each and every individual student, then all kids will cooperate in their own uplifting personal education?
Recent happenings on the streets of Schenectady and in the hallways of schools could be viewed as a predictable outcome of such old, hopelessly naive ideas about American adolescent behavior.
At the heart of the current controversy over the state’s Core Curriculum reform is another vacuous, but trendy notion held most often by the people on the pro-tech bandwagon. It assumes the goal of education — even for middle school and high school students — should be to prepare children for jobs in the tech and business sectors.
Will the U.S. really become uncompetitive in the “global marketplace” if American children receive a well-rounded humanistic-centered education instead of a tech-oriented one?
Some ideologues at conservative think-tanks apparently want us to think this is true. But is it really?
On the national level two basic questions — among many, many possible ones — reflect the extent of public policy platitudes: Why must students and parents pay so much for college education when U.S. colleges and universities possess more than $400 billion hoarded away in non-taxable endowments?
This is a sensible question that should be front and center.
A second question gets right to the issue of the right of government to hold secrets from its citizens: Does a responsible government really need to keep secrets at all from its citizens? We are apparently led to believe that greater transparency works against national security interests? Is that really, really so true?
All of these questions threaten to expose public platitudes that dominate the public debates.
Few people among the leadership insiders, though, really want to confront the major platitudes that undergird so many of public policy debates.
If Flaubert were alive today even he might be tempted to view current public reality as a kind of theatrical stage of folly.
What is left to us, though, is not to become overly exasperated and to continue to pose the reasonable questions that clarify public policy debates.
Insistence on posing hard questions is certainly a form public participation with a clear public purpose. However futile it may seem.
This thought can be at least a consolation for those many of us who are merely observers of the spectacle of today’s public reality.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.