MADISON, Wis. — I’m a political aficionado. I follow the vicissitudes and intricacies of politics like baseball fans follow the results, standings, and stats of the Major Leagues.
Like any true fan, I linger addictively over the “inside baseball” aspect of politics -- the clash of ideologies, unlikely alliances among apparent opponents, the demographics of hot-button issues, etc. But, like the casual baseball fan who doesn’t understand the infield-fly rule, normal voters, with bigger fish to fry, don’t enjoy the arcana of politics. Moreso than political junkies, normal people perceive that, too often, political outcomes, and even the debates that precede those outcomes, bear no relation to common sense.
Don't We All?
Common-sense solutions run into problems when they come up for a vote.
Two examples in today’s news brought this gap between politics-as-usual and common sense to mind.
The trigger that got me thinking was a New York Times editorial about the broad failure of harsh austerity measures among EU countries. The NYT suggests that, to reverse the downward spiral of nations like Italy and Spain, the EU should “allow… weaker nations to issue bonds backed by the euro zone… Faster growth and lower unemployment would provide the resources that could later be used to pay down debts…”
This common-sense solution -- invest now, pay later -- reflects a basic principle refined a century ago by John Maynard Keynes. Since the Great Depression, Keynesian public investment strategies have been a proven approach to recovery from a recession. The most popular opposing strategy, austerity, is more politically moralistic and instinctual than it is economic. But the best argument against austerity is simple common sense: It doesn’t work.
Corporations as people
In the same issue of the NYT, historian James Livingston poses a common-sense response to the oft-stated proposition (lately supported by the US Supreme Court) that “corporations are people” blessed with the same rights and privileges, under the Constitution, that apply to individual citizens. If that’s what corporations really want, says Livingston, OK! Let’s order the IRS to treat corporations exactly the way it treats ordinary taxpayers:
We can finance any amount of transfer payments and "entitlements" by taxing corporations’ profits in the same way we tax personal income, using a progressive formula… make them pay higher taxes on their income. Do that, and the federal deficit goes away.
Livingston’s logic is inescapable, and objectively intuitive. It’s also politically unthinkable. It amounts to an outrage against the special status of America’s self-styled plutocracy, which, if ever seriously proposed, would invite millions of words in denunciation and billions of dollars in lobbying invoices.
While I pondered other nagging political problems whose common-sense solutions are sitting out in the open, waiting in vain to be seized by a politician with an ounce of courage, I thought about Palestine.
For years, common-sense students of Middle-Eastern politics have known how to end the territorial stalemate between the state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The West Bank borders carved out by the 1967 war have long been acknowledged as the de facto line between Israel and a proposed Palestinian state. However, there are now some West Bank Israeli settlements that couldn’t be uprooted without another war. The solution is no secret: Reshape the border to include within Israel the stubbornest of the settlements, and swap chunks of less-disputed Israeli land (including East Jerusalem) to Palestine, equalizing territory on both sides.
Sounds so simple...
The solution is common sense. The eternal obstacle is politics.
OK, let’s see if common sense can apply to gun safety. Of course it can!
The NRA’s brain trust calls for more -- and more powerful -- guns, in schools, churches, bars, courtrooms, etc. The anti-gun movement has answers that supposedly threaten the Constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens to pack heat and to bequeath their RPGs and .50-cal sniper guns to their children.
Common sense argues vehemently against some of these proposals. But the evidence on both sides tends to be thin and disputable. The common-sense answer? Pass 'em all -- every law, pro-gun and anti-gun, that’s been proposed -- with a ten-year sunset provision. As an experimental control, draw a line at the Mississippi River, with half the nation operating under pro-gun laws and the other half vice-versa.
After 10 years, we’ll have loads of data on whether gun violence is better reduced by, for example, arming all the teachers in Kansas with AK-47s, or by banning gun shows and 30-round magazines in Virginia.
Afterwards, of course, common sense suggests that, if we really want to stifle gun violence, we’ll make permanent the measures that actually work best.
Unfortunately, common sense also suggests that the NRA will block everything.