How Not to Solve Real Problems

In a column about the GOP Convention, E.J.Dionne referred to Chris Christie’s speech,which he dubbed “Rousing, if deceptive.”

Dionne noted Christie’s admiration for his dad. “After returning from Army service,” Christie recounted, “he worked at the Breyers Ice Cream plant in the 1950s. With that job and the GI Bill he put himself through Rutgers University at night to become the first in his family to earn a college degree.”

“Good for his dad. But Christie somehow slid over the fact that it was government — through the GI Bill and by financing New Jersey’s fine state university — that gave the elder Christie his chance to rise. Are we to “sacrifice” the next generation by cutting student loans and even arguing, as is becoming fashionable, that some Americans shouldn’t get the opportunity to go to college?”

This convention’s delusional theme–its insistence that successful people “do it themselves”–has been properly debunked by numerous people; for that matter, it’s self-evidently false to anyone who bothers to spend five minutes thinking about it. As a friend remarked, “Do these self-congratulatory types really believe that people in, say, Bangladesh, are less motivated and entrepreneurial human beings? Do they not understand that you can’t sell goods to other people if those others are impoverished? Do they just not notice their own ‘dependence’ on an educated workforce, public safety and functioning infrastructure–none of which would exist without the government?”

True enough, and evident to anyone who hasn’t totally succumbed to ideological BS or irrational hatred of government. But that shouldn’t be our biggest concern with this particular alternate reality.

The problem with this failure to understand our social interdependence and the extent of the role government plays in our lives is that this particular form of blindness prevents us from fixing things that are broken.

I teach college. A college education is a time-honored tool of social mobility (it certainly helped Chris Christie’s father). When that education is successful, it also opens intellectual doors for students who would not otherwise pass through them. A genuine education that goes beyond mere job training enriches lives and enables human progress.

But the cost of a college education is rapidly escalating; it is becoming increasingly unaffordable, leaving millions of students with massive debt that takes decades to pay off. This is a problem we need to address. But like so many other current problems, we aren’t addressing it, because our energies are being consumed by arguments over the nature of reality.

The problem of rapidly escalating college costs is not going to be solved by cutting the programs that help students pay those costs. As another friend of mine likes to say, “you can’t cure a disease unless you diagnose it properly.”

People who don’t understand the problems–or who see problems that don’t exist rather than the ones that do–can’t solve them. They are not the people who move America forward.