How, Why, and Policy Making
"The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free"
-- Baruch Spinoza
Politicians, especially presidential candidates, are to be masters of the sound bite. They are to speak as generally as possible, say they have a plan or that reform is necessary, but nothing more. Many have learned the concept of "the moment you defend your position is the moment you lose." I find this to be an incredible tragedy to democracy. The entire point of democracy is to educate the people, to give them the opportunity to make informed decisions on who best represents them. But politicians don't want to do that. They need to figure out a vague way to get support while also differentiating themselves from their opponents. After all, for the career politician or the aspiring career politician, the moment you agree with your opponent, the moment you find common ground, the moment when people realize you are not much different is the moment when you may actually lose.
Democracy and leadership doesn't give a crap about you losing. Democracy and leadership only works when the people are educated, when they are allowed to think for themselves. The only way real, effective policy can be made in government is if we, the people, are given two very, very, very important pieces of information: how and why.
The "why" is the most important part of the conversation because the "why" is what brings about awareness. "Why" is what cures ignorance. "Why" is the part of understanding. Who, what, when, and where are descriptors of the situation while the notion of "why" provides context. You're probably wondering "why" I'm saying all this. When we take the concept of "why" together with the notions of ignorance and idiocy, we see how both are inexorably linked and indicative of a much larger problem we have in America and the whole of humanity: education. Lack of awareness because there is a lack of "why." Politicians and candidates for office abhor having to explain their reasoning. They despise being shown evidence or logical inconsistencies. They dislike justifying their positions outside of party lines, even when the party line may be utter BS. This is what kills democracy.
Every candidate agrees on these issues: we need healthcare reform, we need tax reform, we need to take care of veterans, we need to help the middle class, we need immigration reform, we need to protect American interests abroad, we need to combat terrorism anywhere on the planet, we need to address government budgets, and we need to address the ever increasing cost of higher education. This is universal, no matter what your party affiliation. It's also as vague as vague can be. Telling the people of the United States this is what we need does nothing. We, the people, are not idiots. We already know this is what we need. The ultimate questions thus become:
- HOW will you address this problem?
- WHY do you think your solution will work?
Without answers to these questions, without constant harping on these two points, democracy will suffer. If you truly believe in your candidate, ask these questions. They should be able to answer with no problem in a coherent, logical fashion. Let's say that I am pushing a policy of increased government transparency when it comes to lobbyists and special interests groups. You either say "that's good" or you ask "why." For those that ask why, I explain my position on special interests, influence, lack of multiple perspectives, and more. This gets you to understand my position. Then you ask how I will accomplish this and I say things like "providing clear, easy to use data access to expenditures and intakes of money by our representatives." Then you ask why I think that will work and I say "because when you have the public looking at your financial activities in government, there is more potential to raise red flags and prevent crony capitalism." And it can go on and on, but at least there is dialogue, reasoning, and raising the levels of awareness of all parties involved in the conversation. Awareness expands. Awareness brings knowledge. And knowledge brings power.
Unless you think like Nobel Prize Winning Economist Paul Krugman. Krugman wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled Knowledge Isn't Power.1 It discusses education and its impact on the economy. The article starts by painting a picture that sounds familiar to the masses: there is a skill gap with American workers that is holding back growth.2 As such, businesses cannot find workers they need. It also compounds income inequalities because those with the "right skills" get rewarded while those without suffer from wage stagnation.3 In other words, lack of education in the areas that are needed results in economic disparity. This is the line toted by many members of Congress and Presidential candidates who are against a liberal arts education.
Krugman goes on to point out how this isn't really correct. He points out the Hamilton Project's study on how inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans has been stagnant since the 90's and how corporate profits have soared and been divested to small groups of strategically positioned individuals.4 He goes on to say that "rising inequality isn't about who has the knowledge; it's about who has the power."5 Then he suggests fixes for income inequality, but that's not what this thesis is about. This thesis is about education and Krugman's point about "knowledge isn't power" is what needs to be addressed.
I do believe there is a skill gap and a suffering in education which is having negative effects on the economy. But this gap is not what you think. It is not a specific skill set. In fact, specificity doesn't even factor in to the equation. It also won't completely solve the economic woes of job growth and income inequality, but it will increase potential and provide for more opportunity.
The gap I speak of lies in our logic, reasoning, and critical thinking skills- skills of incredible importance to not just philosophy, the seeking of Truth with a capital "T," but to expanding awareness and our overall ability to learn.
It's both funny and sad, when you think about it. This great nation was built by learned men with a foundation of logic and reasoning, yet today such skills and even critical thinking ability goes by the wayside. Many people out there think our schools- particularly colleges and universities- are meant to supply us with a workforce tailored to our needs, to produce the necessary cogs for the proverbial economic machine that is America. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, for example, did this with his mandates and desires to slash the University of Wisconsin funding unless the school focused on meeting the needs of the state's workforce.6 Not only is that a bad idea, but it completely misses the purpose of what college education is supposed to be about: learning how to learn.
As kids and teenagers, we first need to learn some basic aspects of the world. This includes things like numbers, letters, arithmetic, sentence structure, language use, etc. Then we are given some context to the world with classes in social studies, American history, world history, etc. The whole point behind Common Core is to give states the ability to tailor education to their needs and methodologies while keeping true to the generality necessary in education. A wide area of knowledge is crucial because it expands our awareness and, with the help of logic, reasoning, and critical thinking, shows us the interrelationships and interdependence of everything in the world. You are able to see how math affects wealth which in turn affects history which explains why certain things happened or did not happen. Context is king. Without context, what is the point?
Think about it in your daily life. You learn something new each day, whether you're aware of it or not. Maybe it's a new project at work that requires you to put together a document and spreadsheet explaining a business methodology. In order for you to do your job well, you need to know who the audience is, what their understanding is, what the perception is, what the goal of the project is, and more. Otherwise you just blindly put something together as quickly as possible because, let's be honest, you have better things to do. Except when your boss sees the result, they find it completely unacceptable. The end result does not serve the purpose they had in mind. And the only way it could have would be if they explained all the context to you or if you asked those questions. I'm of the opinion that if you are not given context and you don't ask for context, you are just as much to blame for producing crap work.
Likewise in life skills. Ask a pitcher for details on everything that goes in to throwing a good curve ball, ask a basketball player about dribbling mechanics, ask a golfer about swinging the club well, ask an offensive lineman about the importance of arm mechanics, or ask anyone with a particular skillset about the importance of all the little things that make up that skillset. Better yet, ask your significant other about what makes sex good and how it can be improved. There are a lot of pieces to these things! By being aware of how much there is that goes into physical and mental aspects of our lives, by being aware of the context, meaning, and "why" of our actions, we teach ourselves about life and the world.
This ability to teach ourselves is of incredible importance. For some strange reason, society has decided that it's better to not make mistakes than to learn from mistakes. I don't agree. If you are told one way and only one way, you restrict yourself in understanding not only the "why" context, but the "how" as well. You made a mistake and you learned from it. That's why we have tests and grades in school, to not only measure performance and knowledge in some fashion but to also give you opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them.
Consider The Matrix (yes, the movie). You probably remember the scene where Neo learns kung fu through a direct download into the brain. Of course you do; "I know kung fu" is a classic line. Remember what happens next? Morpheus says "show me" and they go into a sparring program where Morpheus proceeds to kick Neo's ass. Remember what he says afterwards? He says "your weakness is not your technique." Neo was under the assumption that certain rules were being followed, a certain way. The computer did what computers do: it gave him information, in this case kung fu knowledge. It did not tell him "how" to use it or "why" it works. If it did, then he would have won the first time. Instead, he lost and had to overcome his "mistakes," had to overcome the limitations. He had a teacher who was trying to teach him how to critically think and use logic and reasoning skills to break past his limits. Naturally, he does, and the movie continues into awesomeness.
Now I know I'm talking a lot about this subject without any real policy or Presidential meaning. You're likely wondering "why." Our critical thinking ability allows us to learn and teach ourselves. Logic and reasoning work with critical thinking to make sure we remain grounded and on the right track. These three pieces combined allow for betterment of ourselves and for the world around us. It's what makes innovation possible, what allows new ideas to come forth and spread, and from a political perspective, it's our measure for justifying whether candidates know their stuff or are just spewing overly vague BS backed up by partisan political reasoning which fails the test of logical analysis.
This is the skill gap I spoke of earlier, the inability of individuals to teach themselves, learn from their mistakes, and think critically with logic and reason to steer them in the right direction. Many people aren't even aware of what questions to ask. The lack of context as to what pieces go into the puzzle restricts awareness and, as a result, limits our problem solving ability because the key components to understanding the problem are not there. This is the political mess we deal with on all kinds of issues. This is the real problem for Americans. If you are educated and are aware of how much you don't know but have the ability to think through problems, teach yourself the how's and why's, and rationally consider whether it makes sense or not, you can do just about anything. Chef? No problem. Physicist? No problem. Speak multiple languages? No problem. Represent a constituency full of varying opinions? No problem.
Well, no problem as long as you put in the time and effort. I'm a computer guy by trade, but thanks to a somewhat universal education throughout high school and college, I'm familiar enough with chemistry, physics, English, Spanish, classical literature, American history, world history, economics, law, film production, culinary arts, engineering, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and more to begin a change. I have general understanding of pieces here and there such that I can listen to specialists and sorta kinda follow along. I know enough to know how much I don't know, but also enough so that I can do the necessary research to understand. We don't have a Matrix-like brain learning system like Neo did to teach us kung fu or other skills. Thus we need to nurture our own capacity for learning.
Education is a lifelong pursuit even if college typically ends at age 22. That's why it's crucial to learn how to learn. The best way to learn how to learn is to:
- have a good teacher to help guide you,
- be exposed to many subjects so that your mind is forced to adapt to the myriad of situations, much like Neo's mind does in the fight against Morpheus, and
- be exposed to many perspectives on each particular subject.
That last part is critical. Many people are smart enough to know they don't know. That's why they turn to the news and internet to find out what people who supposedly know better have to say. Unfortunately, while Teddy the One Eyed beaver farmer might possess exceptional knowledge on beaver raising, his opinion that former President Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim that should be thrown out of the country might not be the most accurate. But if you are not educated enough, aware enough to hear or read a statement like that and question its correctness, then you will believe it to be true. You move closer to idiocy than ignorance. You become weak, easy to manipulate and control. You become a pawn in the game of partisan politics where people whom you might trust will use you to get their agenda across.
Our politics has become a sham, a perverse paleness of what it has been and a far cry from what it could be. And the skill gap with logic, reasoning, and critical thinking plays a big part in understanding "why" that is. We, the people, need to challenge our representatives and leaders, ask them tough questions to really understand their policies and how they operate. Do not go easy on the future candidates. Or me for that matter! Really dig deep. When your candidate says they will bring more jobs, ask how. When they say we need to fix taxes, ask how. And always ask why they think their policy will work.
Doing so creates constructive dialogue. It follows a logical pattern with an argument or conclusion that ends up being justified by premises, or reasons. Some political argument for example would be that "all liberals hate America" or that "Tea Party members are all idiots." By themselves, these arguments are worthless, political sound bites that have no justification and serve to prey upon people that their speakers feel too stupid to question it. Over-generalization is the weapon of those who seek to control the masses in politics for when a member of Congress insults an entire political party, they create universal distrust, purposefully separating out an entire class of people. Saying "all liberals hate America" or "Tea Party members are all idiots" may be something you say in casual conversation to gloss over a point, but when it comes to real political discourse, the kind that gives birth to policy by the people and for the people, you absolutely cannot universally lump all people together. There is no rule in logic that takes universality and allows it to exclude certain things. If all liberals hate America, then there cannot exist a single liberal who doesn't hate America. Likewise, if Tea Party members are all idiots, there cannot exist a Tea Party member with a modicum of intelligence.
Logic makes sense. In many ways, logic is common sense, the way of thinking which famous quotes find lacking in humanity. Logic is one of the key tenements of democracy in my opinion, flourishing in the original democracies of ancient Greece, conquered by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others. Logic remains constant to this day, like a mathematical truth that says "Steve and not Steve" is impossible. Logic is how politicians of the original democracies engaged their arguments. Logic and reasoning are what defeat sound bites, partisan politics, and piss poor policy. Logic is what helps give order in a world of spontaneous chaos. And logic is what gives us skepticism, for while it might seem true that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, to universally assume so based on previous experience alone, while a valid argument, is not sound. None of us know with 100% certainty that the sun will rise in the east. Of course, I wouldn't bet otherwise, don't get me wrong, but logically speaking, skepticism is necessary to avoid absolutes.
The only absolutes we have in America are the unalienable Rights of life, liberty, love, honor, humor, and the pursuit of happiness. Logic and reasoning may help us better define these, but such Rights are as natural and true as any mathematical equation can be. For American politics, these Rights together with logic, reasoning, and critical thinking are what shape policy… or rather, what should shape policy. I'm of the opinion that such a foundation is lacking, hence why I'm running for office in the first place!
- See Knowledge Isn't Power.
- See How Gov. Walker tried to quietly change the mission of the University of Wisconsin. Notice how the article shows that Gov. Walker claims it a drafting error but then had it in multiple drafts.