Now that I’m a Minnesotan again, I’ve undertaken to begin reading the editorials in the Twin Cities papers, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Pioneer Press in St. Paul.
It’ll be a chore, let me tell you.
In its editorial dated Aug. 18, headlined, “Dirty political secret: we can work together,”
the paper lauds Minnesota politicians of both parties who have come together after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge to lobby the federal government for lots of money to replace it.
The editorial says:
“As we wrote shortly after the collapse, sometimes it takes a disaster to get politicians to make sense.
But much of the work of government could be as nonpolitical as the reaction to the bridge collapse. A person’s position on abortion or Iraq doesn’t matter much when it comes to recovering from a bridge collapse. Why should it get in the way of negotiating a new farm bill or protecting air and water or making long-range decisions on energy and transit?
Why are we so often presented with black-white choices that seem to be well within the range of compromise?
Before addressing the question, I pause to point out that the last sentence makes no sense, or at least it can’t be what the writer intended to say. If the choices presented, whatever their color scheme, were “well within the range of compromise,” what would be the problem? Clearly, what the writer meant are choices “that are deliberately outside the range of compromise.”
Don’t these people have editors?
More substantively, there are excellent reasons why much of the work of government can’t be “non-political.” A bridge collapse is likely to be a once-in-a-career event for a politician. They can’t afford to be thought callous or insensitive, but aside from that self-interested calculation no deep philosophical principles are implicated.
In contrast, “negotiating a new farm bill or protecting air and water or making long-range decisions on energy and transit” draw on the most fundamental beliefs about what the government should be doing and how best to go about it. Congress got farm policy wrong in the Depression, for pardonable reasons, and has gone right on getting it wrong, in various ways, ever since. People may agree on protecting air and water but disagree on how to do it. Why should anyone be prepared to compromise on long-range decisions about energy and transit if they firmly believe that the wrong decision will burden American society and economy for decades?
It’s nothing to do with “abortion or Iraq.” That’s just a cheap rhetorical shot, since there’s little evidence that positions on those issues directly influence people’s positions on economic matters. As Thomas Sowell pointed out in A Conflict of Visions, people’s basic understanding of human nature predisposes them to prefer certain broad types of policies. It is simplistic to assume that any one such policy is the primary cause of all the others.