Wednesday, March 14, 2012

It's Not That SImple

This post has been around for some time.  I wrote some of it a long time back and then sat on it.  Then I read this post by Phil Plate and was inspired to complete it.  Then I let it sit again, just because.  Today I am tired of seeing it in my list of unpublished posts, so it gets kicked out of the nest.  It's still accurate and timely, particularly given the rhetoric of the presidential campaign.

Modern politics really bothers me.  It's full of people who only see things one way.

Is the only fix for our current economic situation to get the government out of the way of business?  Or is it that there isn't enough regulation in place to keep things under control?

More importantly, why do so many people I know - and so many pundits and candidates for office - fall into the trap of thinking like that?

Let's start with something obvious.  Governments and businesses share something: they are composed of people, and people inevitably do stupid things.  Whether it's the federal government writing regulations no small business can possibly follow, or wall street bankers creating derivatives no one can possibly understand, the results can be disastrous for all of us, and there are always unintended consequences.

Does anyone honestly think that any given government here in the US is actively trying to stifle business and thus harm the economy?  By the same token, does anyone actually believe that businesses are inherently more honest than any other group of people?

It seems to me that governments and business are both tools.  Sometimes one tool is better than another for a given task.  Arguing over which tool to use may be fine, but suggesting that we should throw one or another tool out of the toolbox entirely is short sighted in the extreme.

There are things that only a government can reasonably be expected to handle, and there are things that business is better off doing.  At any given point in history we, as a nation, are attempting to strike a balance between these two things, and that balance is constantly changing thanks to external influences.

If you're going to argue that the government cannot possibly pay for everything it has to do, fine.  You and/or your elected representatives, though, must make rational suggestions about what to cut and where.  You must be honest in detailing what those cuts mean, and you need to be fair about how the pain of those cuts is apportioned.

Similarly, if you think that businesses of some sort must be reigned in, you need to be honest about your expectations, and forthright in your statements about what needs to be changed or regulated and why.  The results of those regulations must be anticipated as best as possible, and the consequences understood and accepted by all of those affected.  Regulations should not be needlessly burdensome, and limited as best as possible to affect only those things desired.

Note, though, that any change - on the side of business or government - will give rise to unintended consequences, and unexpected behaviours on the part of people somewhere.  None of us can see all the repercussions of our actions in that depth.  The systems we're talking about are far too complicated and variable to allow for accurate predictions.  (If any of this was easy we'd already have agreed on and implemented a fix, don't you think?)

And humans definitely do not always act in their own best interest, even when they know what that interest is, which, frankly, isn't all that often.

For me, the upshot of all this is simple: an opinion about some complicated political issue is just that: an opinion.  You are welcome to it, but none of us can be declared right or wrong until all the data is in, and probably not until well after we're dead.  Until then, polite discussion and compromise are required.  Of all of us.  All of us.