Why do we fear innovative public policy? The solutions to many of the problems we face today could be found in such innovation.
The main barrier in the way of innovative public policy is the counterintuitive nature of many solutions. It’s hard for us to envision solutions that seem to go against everything we have been taught.
For instance, Ronald Reagan famously informed us “Government is not the solution to our problem, Government is the problem.” His declaration was clear, easy to understand, and easy to believe. We can see examples where our government steered us in the wrong direction and became the problem.
With this understanding of government, it is incredibly hard to see the obvious instances when more government could be part of the solution to a problem. Fixing our healthcare system is a perfect example of this. All available evidence convincingly illustrates government-run healthcare systems produce higher quality, better access to care, and are significantly less expensive than our system in the U.S. Despite this, we cannot seem to wrap our heads around these facts. They simply run counter to what our intuition, and so many politicians and pundits tell us.
Another prime example is the War on Drugs. Right now, the country is in the throes of an opioid epidemic. Experts and our government have taught for over a century now that drugs are bad, and drug users require punishment to mend the error of their ways. The idea of decriminalizing or even legalizing some drugs as the answer to this problem is completely ludicrous to us. How could that ever solve anything?
Yet, that is exactly the solution the people of Portugal chose. They responded to their heroin epidemic by decriminalizing heroin and all other drugs and investing heavily in drug treatment. As a result, they have lower drug use and abuse rates than we do, and their financial cost of fighting drugs has fallen compared to our continually rising costs.
We need innovative leaders.
Solving complex problems requires thinking about the problem in completely counterintuitive ways. It involves innovative public policy and innovation in the private sector. The only way that becomes comfortable for us is when those who influence us show us the way. It requires lawmakers, the media, celebrities, educators, and other influencers to be brave and bold. Under courageous direction, we can change the rules of the game.
Not long ago, I was riding in the car with Andrew, my youngest son. All at once he matter-of-factly proclaimed, “Daddy, I just saw a hawk.” Once I acknowledged his proclamation he followed in his customary manner by asking a question.
“Do hawks hurt people?”
“No,” I responded, “they don’t really bother people at all.”
“Do other birds bother people?” he asked.
“No,” I said, thinking this over a bit. “Birds are just kind of doing their own thing.” After a moment I added a caveat, “Well, birds will bother you if you get too close to their house, which is their nest. They don’t like that.”
The answer satisfied him, and he entered back into his realm of contemplative thumb-sucking. It satisfied me, too. That is, until I realized how plainly I had created a metaphor.
For quite some time now I have been perturbed by silos. They are everywhere, dotting the entire landscape. They often seem innocuous and easily escape our notice. It is quite a marvel how invisible something is when it’s so familiar.
Of course, silos are not native only to my region, but occupy other cities, towns, and constituencies throughout the world. Silos are constructed over time by people.
Once constructed, they stand stubbornly, allowing little in or out. Once within a silo, one doesn’t have much of a view. The walls are sturdy and opaque. Light and fresh air struggle to reach the occupants inside.
Yet, these occupants so often stand just as stubbornly within the silo’s walls as those walls themselves. It’s as if there is no recollection of the life and energy offered by the world outside. Only a death grip on whatever remains within the walls, and the uncertainty of what lies beyond.
But pity they who threaten the silo!
Any threats, of reality or perception, will be met with the wrath of the mama red winged blackbird. What I didn’t have the heart to tell Andrew at the moment of his innocent questioning, was that some birds would peck your eyes out if they could.
Look Out Below!
I’m pretty sure this is what he was really looking for, but the likelihood he will need to worry about this before his brain development moves further along is slim. Of course, I will have to tell him someday.
This actually used to be a fairly common concern for me. Not too long ago I was (and hopefully will be again someday) a runner. When I first found an interest in distance running, I was living in a small Iowa town that was almost a perfect five miles in running circumference.
Five miles wasn’t quite enough, so I found myself wandering country roads fairly often. In the late spring and early summer, I often shared these roads with angry mama red-wing blackbirds who wanted to peck my eyes out.
It was fascinating and terrifying. They had no idea who they were messing with and they didn’t care. They had one concern as they screeched and swooped toward my flailing form. “Stay the hell away from my nest!”
I always understood their motives, and how these motives mixed with rational fear brought on by evolutionary biology. You can see crows, sparrows, and their relatives fending off birds and animals of prey, too.
The mama’s thoughts and actions were always in every way logical and substantiated by evidence. Silos, on the other hand, fly right in the face of evidence and reason.
No Man’s Island
People need one another. Every one of us. Our ancestors realized this from the very beginning. This is why we pack ourselves together so tightly.
It’s obvious in cities, but even in towns. A drive in any direction from my home will take you toward another little town with houses packed neatly next to one another in the middle of nowhere.
What is it, then, that drives us so far apart? It’s the same two emotions that drove those red-winged mamas straight for my skull: greed and fear.
We are greedy by nature. We tend to think of greed as a vice, but it’s actually a useful evolutionary trait. Our bodies are built to survive.
We feel the need to make sure we have enough, to make sure we have more. This is what makes greed such a tricky prospect. We feel it so strongly it blinds our ability to think.
When we feel threatened by encroaching forces, and feel like we might lose what we have, our fear ignites.
Once that fear grabs hold, we mount our defense. We defend our possessions, our land, our opportunities, and our power. We build walls.
We quickly identify who among us is on our team, and we retreat behind our walls together. Then, we begin our attack.
Together, we rally around all of the things that make the groups on the other side of the walls different. We find a way to make them “other”.
We call them terrorists, criminals, cheaters, illegals, Muslims, Mexicans. These words calm our fears. They convince us we are right and righteous.
We give ourselves completely to our greed and our fear, and we completely fail to see that none of this makes any sense at all.
This path has abandoned all logic and reason. We have locked rational thought out of our silos and placed it on the other side of our walls.
There is a better way forward—open our eyes and open our ears. Open our minds to real solutions. Walls and silos are not the answer. Retreat is not the answer. In the recent words of Pope Francis, “All walls fall. All of them. Do not be fooled.”
We need each other. We learn from each other. Greed and fear are a part of our biology, but it is our ability to think, to reason, to understand, and to solve that makes us human.