The Importance of How

The essential question that faces all policymakers is “what should we do about problem X.” That question has two parts. Once problem X has been identified, and a goal has been established (solving problem X), the remaining question becomes how. 

After all, we could dramatically reduce crime by locking citizens in their homes between, say, 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. We could reduce the transmission of flu by decreeing that all Americans wear masks during flu season. You can probably think of other methods of approaching social problems that would undoubtedly achieve their goals, but would simply create hostility, division and other problems.

Of course, deciding the proper “how” requires some fundamental agreement on the nature of the problem. We’re seeing this now, with the issue of immigration. Republicans define the problem as too many of “those people” entering the country; Democrats see it as the challenge of distinguishing between criminals and legitimate refugees entitled to help while hampered by obsolete laws and a dramatically under-resourced system.

When I taught my Law and Policy students, I focused upon the importance–and complexity–of those “how” solutions. Do we have broad agreement on the problem and what a satisfactory solution might look like? If so, how do we craft a policy that will achieve that solution without inadvertently creating or exacerbating other problems?

I recently read Washington Post column that focused on a vivid example.

There is a grim, fairly popular story of the American social contract that goes roughly like this: Motivated by entrenched racial hostility, the greed of the rich (or maybe something else), the richest country on the planet refuses to develop a true welfare state that might secure the well-being of its citizens.

The column proceeds to examine the extensive social science research confirming the nature and extent of America’s inequality, and the multiple social problems that have been attributed to poverty and inequality.

Taxation and redistribution have been successfully resisted, branded as illegitimate scams to feather the beds of welfare queens. Globalization and technological disruption have been embraced even as the institutions designed to protect the most vulnerable workers — unions, minimum wages — have lost their power to provide for a dignified living.

In this American story, the less fortunate — Black, Brown and White — are left to scratch by as best they can, often falling into a deep well of misery. The rich engorge themselves way beyond anything seen in other wealthy, industrialized societies of the West. And yet, though the destitution is clear for all to see, recent research suggests that the story built around it is, at best, incomplete.

In fact, as a number of researchers have confirmed, the United States spends a lot of money on redistribution–on that word Republicans find so repulsive: welfare. The problem isn’t that we haven’t funded programs intended to help the needy, the problem is how those programs work–or (mostly) don’t.

Inequality might not cause these symptoms on its own. Instead, many of America’s social maladies stem from the strategies it has chosen to mitigate the lopsided distribution of income, which leave its citizens singularly vulnerable.

The essay went on to suggest “fixes” with which I largely disagreed, because I have concluded that the worst aspect of America’s social welfare system is its tendency to divide, rather than unify our citizenry. (Our patchwork “system” is also wasteful, far too bureaucratic, and inaccessible to the working poor, but those are problems for a different post.)

As I have repeatedly argued, public policies can either increase or reduce polarization and tensions between groups. Policies to help less fortunate citizens can be delivered in ways that stoke resentments, or in ways that encourage national cohesion.  Currently, far too many Americans have very negative attitudes about welfare programs for poor people. In contrast, overwhelming majorities approve of Social Security and Medicare. That’s because Social Security and Medicare are universal programs; as I’ve previously noted, virtually everyone contributes to them and everyone who lives long enough participates in their benefits.

Just as we don’t generally hear accusations that “those people are driving on roads paid for by my taxes,” or sentiments begrudging a poor neighbor’s garbage pickup, beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma.

In addition to the usual questions of efficacy and cost-effectiveness, policymakers should evaluate proposed programs by considering whether they are likely to unify or further divide Americans. Universal policies are far more likely to unify, to create social solidarity–an important and often overlooked argument favoring a Universal Basic Income.

In our current, highly polarized political environment, we need to focus on whether the solutions to social problems unify or further divide our quarrelsome nation.


  1. Hampered by obsolete laws? It is the law and Biden and Mayorkas are breaking the constitution. Democrats in cities are crying iut Denver has 40k refugees in a city of 700k?
    Its thevloss of black reparations by politicians who shame others and do everything to bring in cheap labor. You have to look beyond the theoretical here and actually look at the changing demographic of refugees. Its a worldwide demographic and now more than ever challenges the security of iur country. The Colts football player that was tin over by an immigrant that got here illegally, yes a black man killed and ran down for the sake of politicians getting power through votes. Its about my backyard and yours and not the politicians who build walls around their complexes snd can hire security guards.
    Not buying one party over another its kick out anyone who over that four years has disobeyed the constitution by ignoring laws on the books .today.

  2. “How to” build in prevention for grifters from using this for their own advantage? “How to” provide oversight to ensure effective and efficient operation? “How to” measure desired impact to keep improving the policy?

  3. As long as politicians – mostly Republicans – continue to be funded by the rich instead of by the people they’re supposed to represent, the United States will continue down the road that Marx predicted unregulated capitalism would take: RUINATION.

    When looking at the homeless camps around the nation, how can we deny it. Many of those on the street are there because their jobs didn’t pay them enough to afford rent, never mind the pie-in-the-sky concept of owning one’s home. The millions of food-insecure children, the pathetic public schools (tragically under-funded) and a health care system that keeps insurance company executives in Armani suits are ALL symptoms of that road to our own demise.

    Let’s throw in our blind support of the current Israeli fiasco. Where is the benefit to anyone in the United States except those selling weapons to our own military as well as to our “allies” – some of which are intent, it seems, on starting WW III.

    So, how indeed do we fix this “fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into”? In my book, “Racing to the Brink: The End Game for Race and Capitalism”, I mention several ideas that include making election day a national holiday (Oh no. Not another day off for those shiftless workers), end Citizens United’s Orwellian decision and establish the expansion of Medicare to cover EVERYONE … you know, like every other “civilized” nation does. Raise taxes on the wealthy and disallow them to send their money to Switzerland. There is about $40 TRILLION in cash residing overseas doing nothing but allowing the rich to live off the interest. Imagine what a trillion here or there could do for training those homeless people to do productive work at a living wage.

    And therein lies the rub: Too many Scrooges hoarding money while too many workers scratch out a living… such as it is.

  4. Vernon covered this topic very well but still won’t hold Democrats accountable for being puppets of the Oligarchy. Both parties have aligned with oligarchic interests, making it impossible to effect policy changes that might negatively impact those Oligarchs.

    Americans highly favor universal healthcare, but Congress can’t even bring it to a vote. The so-called “progressive democrats” have been abject failures once elected into the corrupt system.

    The election system is also broken and has been since our inception. Only a few hundred thousand voters elect the president due to the electoral college and gerrymandering, making us far from a democracy.

    Fixing our borders should have been a priority years ago before it overwhelmed our country. Meanwhile, the MIC gets the President and Congress to send billions to Ukraine and Israel to prop up revenues with kickbacks to the politicians.

    The bottom line is that the political will in this country is aligned with the oligarchy — NOT the people.

  5. Republicans have, perhaps, discovered an inherent weakness in democracy as applied in today’s entertainment media-saturated world. Voters can taught to fear and be angry about something through entertainment media, for which the apparent solution creates division among the electorate.

    Politics first through entertainment media like the Murdochs and Mark Zuckerberg influence, followed by governance solutions through ALEC. Manage the electorate using not very subtle subterfuge at the expense of solving real problems for the country.

    That explains the Republican/Trump hold on a coalition of single-issue voters. Evangelical Christians. Gun hobbyists. Racists. Misogynists. State’s rights extremists. Wealth redistribution up fans. Survivalists. People who are marginally employed typically because they are marginally educated in a knowledge-based world.

    In other words, those out of touch with what it takes to thrive in today’s world, not to mention tomorrow’s.

    Of course, the country will fail under such governance, but having power in a failing country makes people wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

    Easy pickin’s (said no slave ever).

  6. Sheila rides again to frame a timely civil debate on large complex policy issues feathered by political whims. During the 70’s, I was privileged to be a graduate student of urban and regional policy studies at the University of Texas. Yes … they actually have fully articulated erudite studies to enlighten possibilities in Texas. We had “The War on Poverty” to the development of large scale public works like for example DFW Regional Airport. Who decides and for whom does it benefit? We had many visible large scale initiatives to chew on to align our contributions to debate with scholarly research from policy studies.

    Tension between progressive and regressive policy fueled by related tax financing looms large with long term consequences to individual, community, regional and national scale. And, YES, people can choose where they want to live accordingly and participate in the resulting economy accordingly.

    My maternal grandfather, a West Texas farmer with an eighth grade education, whose nearest neighbor was a mile away, summed it all as the greatest lesson for me: “What goes round, comes round.”

  7. Republican politicians depend on policies that divide us. If they didn’t have divisive policies to complain about they would have nothing to speak about in their campaigns. When is the last time we’ve heard a republican politician campaign with positive news and ideas for how they plan to improve the lives of the middle class and poor? If they can’t attack the democrats they have nothing to say.

  8. Wait a minute, we have become masters of redistribution, just that we send the wealth upwards!
    Universal Basic Income was, it seemed, clearly where Sheila’s post was going. Making sense.

  9. Politics,as a practice, whatever it’s professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.

    Henry Adams

  10. I recently wrote to my Senator, Eric Koch, and my Representative, David Hall, after receiving their tax payer funded “constituent surveys”. The letters were about school funding and how moving away from funding buildings/ academics in 2009 and to the funding following the child has cyfined funding from smaller, poorer communities. The letter spoke to charter, private, parochial, virtual school funding, falling enrollment, poor teachers pay and many other school related funding issues caused by the current funding model. I asked them to please consider a summer study committee.
    I spent days researching in order to present facts thoughtfully and respectfully.
    I sent copies of the letters to local papers for publication. The following week, Ball State and the Chamber of Commerce released a study they had jointly conducted that basically said the current funding had created a class system in the state. Larger schools offered more in everything from foreign language study to arts and music study and everything in between. Where smaller schools districts had few if any extra offerings and had to receive extra funding just to maintain core standards. I thought “WOW, surely my representatives will stand up and take notice.”
    Just this week I received a response from Senator Koch, three short sentences thanking me for my letter, informing me he had included a more up to date copy of the teachers bargaining agreement and asking me to contact him if I needed anything.
    Not one of my questions or concerns answered! A copy of the teachers bargaining agreement, as if to say it is the unions fault. I am disgusted. How do you get your voice heard?

  11. I have a hard time wrapping my head around people with antipathy towards programs making up the social safety net. To me, if people need help, they should receive help. The more help they need–i.e. the more terrible their circumstances–the more help they should receive.

    So, first, to today’s post, Republicans don’t like poor people or brown people. The only “legitimate” immigrant to them is one who is reasonably well off, applies from their home country, and enters the country after approval (even if that takes many, many years). They absolutely do not want refugees at all. When they fall back on “only wanting legitimate immigrants” in the face of arguments for these poor people, they give themselves away. These _are_ legitimate immigrants, and there are already processes in place to deal with their claims. And the world has already made rules about this. So, understand they really mean they just don’t care about any of that: they just don’t want them. Of course, to me, these people are the ones who need the most help; they are ones that most cause my heart to squeeze in desperate horror when they don’t get help.

    Second, though, many Republicans feel that the poor don’t DESERVE help. (Hopefully, you hear my derision in the word “deserve.”) To Republicans, they are lazy, or drug addicts, or suffering from mental or physical disabilities. To me, that just means more programs should apply, and they should get _additional_ help, not less.

    But let’s think positively… about a future, better world, where treating people decently, with kindness, empathy and love, is the norm, not the outlier. It _will_ happen, I am convinced. Eventually.

  12. Here’s an outline of a solution for our immigration nightmare. We have over 8 million jobs we can’t fill. We have 6 million people waiting to cross our border. What I hear from people on the wrong side is that “those people” come in and take jobs from Americans, that they don’t pay taxes and they get everything they need from the government.

    HWhen someone gets to the border, register them and their families, give them work permits and tag their EIN for a split to a training fund for US citizens to train for those unfillable jobs.

  13. The Preamble setting forth the reasons for adoption of our Constitution reads as follows: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, PROMOTE THE GENERAL WELFARE (my emphasis), and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves AND OUR POSTERITY (my emphasis), do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

    A guaranteed annual wage would help “promote the general welfare,” and research proves that such a so-called “handout” during the Covid emergency was spent for groceries and rents and not blown by “welfare queens” on drugs and booze, as those who favor government handouts of trickledowns via buybacks and tax cuts to themselves would have the polity believe. It is true that the “gummint” is into welfare spending, but it isn’t “general.” Try “welfare for the Kochs and his ilk” who corrupt our Supreme Court and right wing politicians – and largely from the rest of us who are financing their greed, thanks in large part to Citizens United.

    Trump is the perfect foil for these wealthy gangsters and has managed to put manufactured issues on the political table, thus calling the polity’s attention to non-issues when and while the real issues calling for relief are ignored. He and his cult and many Republicans, other than tax relief for the rich and corporate class, have no platform and exist only to scuttle Democratic attempts to govern. General welfare? “Blessings of Liberty? See Dobbs, Shelby, Citizens United and the audacious temerity of a major political party to offer an indicted psychopath to the highest office in the land – an office once occupied by Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR et al.

    We are the “posterity” alluded to in the Preamble and I for one am not feeling the “Blessings of Liberty” promised therein – and I am male. I cannot imagine how women must feel with Dobbs, Trump, and state politicians in their intimate lives.

  14. Thank you, Sheila, and several others for offering your visions. A bipartisan approach to our issues, with less blame and finger pointing (see Johns posts) might prove more productive to gaining some control over a multiheaded beast such as our expanded problem ladened system or governing and holding individuals responsible for actions of a great many players in the field. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid)applied to Legislative bills might help to regain some sense of managerial control. Just saying.

  15. The homeless and abandoned in our midst are to a great degree suffering from addiction (which is a DISEASE not a sin) PTSD, especially among veterans and untreated mental illnesses.
    Instead of having policies in place to help those desperate people get much needed care, the politicians and their supporters have chosen to stigmatize and dismiss their misery as resulting from poor choices, laziness or other dehumanizing features.
    Instead they encourage them all to arm themselves against all of the “others”, contributing to the misery in unimaginable ways, all while enriching the policy makers, businesses and the industry lobbyists who smirk at those they consider rubes on their way to the bank.
    The solutions? Better mental health funding which should be part of any Medicare upgrade. Heavy user taxes to fund treatment programs. Common sense gun ownership rules applied equally before the law with background checks and mandatory use and storage training for all gun owners, a license to own that is renewed just like driver’s licenses are.
    While they are at it, make voter registration a part for any licensing policy.
    It will never happen in my lifetime, although that is a short window now.
    Our Founders were dreamers, too, and way smarter than I am. But they could never have foreseen the world we occupy. They did a pretty good job of trying to address future issues with the limited resources and knowledge available at the time, to say nothing of the death grip the powerful class had on power across the world. What goes around, comes around, indeed. It never seems to stop changing. Maybe that is a good thing in the long term.

  16. JoAnne Himebaugh – as you recently experienced – letters are a complete waste of time. Call their office and complain. You will be speaking to an aide so let that aide know you are serious and demand either a return call from your rep or a face-to-face meeting. No need to go easy on the aide either. If the aide attempts to waste your time by telling you his/her opinion about the legislation stop them and tell them you called to give your opinion, thoughts and ideas – not the other way around.
    When they realize that you mean business you will get a response.

  17. In my experience, whether communicating with large companies or politicians, a physical, USPO-delivered letter addressed to the top banana has more impact than a telephone “voicemail” or an email. A paper letter can’t be responded to quickly by an evasive or irrelevant email. An assistant may forward a paper letter to the honcho, or take it in person to a top aide or directly to the honcho. Sending a paper letter allows the sender to think through what to say, reread/revise for clarity/impact, and provide a thoughtful argument or request. A well-crafted letter has impact in part by demonstrating the writer’s seriousness. The relative novelty of a paper letter rather han email helps catch attention. Where appropriate and allowed, an organizational letterhead may help grab attention.

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