The last few months, I’ve been reporting on big, complicated chunks of public policy, things like property taxes, the cap-and-trade approach to curbing climate change, and economic development in the Adirondacks.
One of the things I’ve rediscovered is that explaining the complexity and nuance of these thorny, controversial programs is really hard.
But I’ve also been forced to wrestle yet again with the fact that people who want to short-circuit debate about these things can do so really easily.
Let me give an example.
Cap-and-trade is a very complex system designed to encourage polluters to reduce the amount of pollution they emit.
The system works not through old-school regulations, with bureaucrats measuring every drop that comes out of every exhaust pipe and smokestack.
Instead, C&C places an overall cap on the amount of pollution that an industry can emit, then uses market forces and commodity training to encourage innovation and efficiency.
Did you get all that? The truth is, I haven’t really begun to touch the important details and fine points of the program.
But here, by way of contrast, is the version offered up by critics of cap-and-trade: It’s a hidden tax.
See? One sentence, simple, blunt, powerful, easy to understand and really inaccurate. (Yes, cap-and-trade adds something to the cost of doing business, but usually far less than normal regulations.)
The same is true for the byzantine, flawed and in some ways really innovative health care reform bill. It’s almost impossible to translate all the moving parts into an understandable narrative.
But opponents of the plan don’t need to. They just talk about “death panels” and claim that IRS agents will knock down your door if you don’t obey the dictates of Big Government.
Conservatives, of course, aren’t the only ones guilty of this tactic.
(As an aside, I’ll mention that all these policies — cap-and-trade, health insurance mandates, and end-of-life counseling — were first proposed and championed by Republicans.)
When the right talks about curtailing illegal immigration — a legitimate and complicated debate — liberals often accuse them of racism or intolerance. How’s that for a conversation stopper?
But the truth is that Republicans have had the luxury of late of being on the outside.
That means they’ve been more free to toss around snappy catch-phrases without having to take on the messy (and wordy) business of governing.
Even before taking their new majority in the House, the GOP is leaving that comfortable nuance-free territory behind.
They partnered with President Barack Obama on a controversial and complex tax compromise. And like it or not, that’s how government works.
The devil, and the people’s business, are in the details, and not in the pithy one-liner.