The Problem with Solutions is They’re Boring

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

The last several years I’ve attempted to get students interested in design, urban/suburban relationships, and issues related to human ecology. It’s not exactly sexy stuff when compared to the typical college classroom writing fare, as illustrated in rhetorics and readers: death penalty, drug legalization, gun control. That sort of thing. The death penalty has very much been in the news and people get excited and impassioned about it, but, in the classroom, it’s difficult to develop fresh and impactive perspectives.

I would hazard that most issues come with nuance, but nuance can be boring and even boorish, much like punning when under the influence or during a card game. In his article, Balancing Act: What Can be Cut from State Spending, John McKinney promotes three arguments in support of a cost cutting project. He writes:

Being honest about the crisis we face; building a bipartisan coalition of legislators committed to reducing government spending and creating jobs; and bringing state employee wages and benefits more in line with the private sector are keys to responsibly balancing the budget.

This thesis goes for the throbbing jugular of that cussing giant so often seen in adventure tales. The first issue goes to the image of GAAP, which most commentators agree will reveal the real CT budget mess and hence promote an honest picture of what needs solving. The second issue goes to the image of a “balanced” legislature with equal parts Democrat and Republican (but not Green Party) which would promote “bipartisanship.” The third issues goes to the image of the over-expensive state employee as moocher (I fully disclose myself as one of these cadges).

I contend that these “images” are fads. While exciting, they amount to either herring being dragged along the path or those typical “perspectives” of the out party who always accuses the in party of either having caused all the problems, having ignored the real solutions, or keeping all the marbles to themselves. As the issues with state employee moochers, the author does supply evidence of this grubbing. He writes:

Connecticut’s government has grown beyond taxpayers’ ability to pay for it. In fact, state spending has increased 227 percent since 1980 — rising from $4,400 per household to more than $10,000 per household — while median household income remained relatively flat.

and later

Unlike the state’s private sector, which lost 100,000 jobs during the recession, the public sector avoided layoffs by granting concessions. Still, state employee wages and benefits account for nearly 25 percent of total government spending (more than $4.5 billion annually), and further concessions must be part of any responsible proposal to eliminate our deficit.

There are a couple of issues with this evidence, all, of course, subject to rebuttal. The author does supply the cost of its own employees to the private sector in order to provide comparison. In argumentation, relations should accompany statistics to supply both context and relevance. What is, for example, the percentage of payroll for GM or Apple, Inc and, even better, why and even better why the difference? Secondly, the author fails to define “private sector” or evolve the issue of “entity” in the eyes of government, as “small business” are treated differently than large corporations, and sectors complicate things. A sub-issue here has to do the other “75 percent” question or to payroll as “percentage of gross” benchmarks across the board.

In addition, the author does not develop this idea: “bringing state employee wages and benefits more in line with the private sector are keys to responsibly balancing the budget.” This idea is a garble requiring definition and substantive evidence. Would, for example, lining up state employee wages and benefits be “key” or would it make things worse? Line them up with what, for example, as “lining” would imply similarity that may be difficult to solidify?

While there is debate about the proper application of idioms such as “the devil is in the details” (van der Rohe) or “God is in the detail” (Flaubert?), I generally agree with Tom Condon in his assessment of “the problem.” The problem is in the sewer. But that’s not very exciting. And Jeffrey Thompson’s recent study on infrastructure and tax incentives certainly makes an alternative case than McKinney’s. But no one’s going to build a reality show around “drinking water infrastructure.”


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