Law in Contemporary Society

Dealing with the "Fix"

-- By HelenMayer - 27 Feb 2009

As a casual observer of politics, I am always fascinated by the idea of the “fix.” The cycle, call it a play even, goes something like this: an issue arouses the public conscience and a popular call for action results. After Congress passes legislation addressing it, commentators spend a week reviewing each player’s performance and wrapping up the story on the Sunday shows. The issue then slips off the front pages while politicians take a curtain call. Everyone considers the problem “fixed” until a blue ribbon commission of experts publishes a report reminding us that, in fact, the problem still exists. Then comes the “reform effort,” more legislation to quell the resulting popular outcry, more curtain calls, and so the play continues. We see this phenomenon all the time. We “fixed” the Nation at Risk with No Child Left Behind legislation and now are schools are accountable. We “fixed” the problems of our country’s working poor by raising the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. We “fixed” children’s health care by extending SCHIP and now millions more have access. I think this tendency has a simple, but potentially intractable source. Political action follows this pattern for the same reason that the ultimate decision of guilt or innocence is left to twelve people locked in a blackbox, and for the same reason that people turn to religion to assuage their fear of death – to provide a comforting resolution to problems people feel otherwise powerless to cope with.

The traditional explanations for society’s response to major problems are often structural. We are told that these things take time to work, that it will take years to measure their full effect – if it is possible at all. Until then there is no sense in Monday morning quarterbacking. But I for one have heard enough talking heads debate how much is left in the TARP fund or whether capital projects are really “shovel-ready” to wonder if we as a public are even interested in the answers. Others blame the media in general with its penchant for flash over substance. The only way the networks can even approach profitability is to be the first on the scene of the next big crisis – no time to cover yesterday’s news, let alone its after effects! But I would argue these explanations are little more than symptoms of this same human tendency to convince ourselves that the problem solved whenever possible.

  • You didn't notice the missing word above. That means you didn't proofread adequately. Get used to finding and fixing every mistake and solving every problem with your language, if possible.

  • I don't understand why you want to cast this as a description of "the reason" politics works as it does. That commits you to a unifactorial explanation of complex phenomena, which means that readers are certain, and the more they know the more certain they are, to find themselves in disagreement with you, even if they agree the phenomenon you are describing exists and is important. I don't think you need to make this strong claim in order to have an essay that holds together, and you can't hold it together against the sales resistance you are raising unnecessarily.

We are familiar with the players in this drama of politics, and their actions belie their underlying motivations. In the opening act, a problem hits the front pages - today it might be the economic collapse or violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. Ordinary people play their part as outraged citizens clamoring for resolution to these problems because it seems too difficult to deal with personally, just as it seems too difficult to address the problem of the subjectivity of facts in a trial or the fear of death in the human psyche. So, Congress and the President are cast in the roles of “fixers-in-chief” with the television networks serving dual functions as microphone and narrator (ironic is it not, that in this nation that hates paying taxes and claims to hate government interference in our own lives, that our first response to the problems of others is to demand government intervention?). When these “fixers” develop a solution, we may not be able to grasp what it means for a country to spend $634 billion on health care reform, or to home in on $2 trillion in budgetary savings over the next ten years. But passing the law or developing the way forward alleviates the uncertainty we feel about these problems. Once the “fix” portion of the play reaches its conclusion, we can return to our steady state of contentedness while telling ourselves that although it was not a perfect bill, such a thing does not exist. At least we as a society “dealt” with the problem, and for pity’s sake next time we should remember not to watch how laws or sausage are made. We remain in this cognitive state until the blue ribbon commissions and “outside agitators” lead us to clamor once again for a solution (this time with lessons learned, of course) and the play begins anew.

Admittedly, this is a discouraging portrait of how our laws are written. And in focusing on the public’s role in encouraging a “fix” I have not touched on the undercurrent of competing interests that lurk just below the surface. This is not to say I do not recognize the existence of that element as well. Indeed, when all the check-writing attendees at a fundraiser with John Murtha, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations, attach business cards from Boeing, Lockheed and Northrup Grumman these players are brought into stark relief.

  • But doesn't that make this account a wedding without musicians? These players do far too much to determine whether legislation actually happens to be eliminated from the discussion of the political cycle, and they are not about hiding from their uncertainties. So for the unifactorialist, they're a big problem with the explanation, and for the multifactorialist, they're necessary characters in the drama.

Instead, I focus on other parts of the play because only by understanding what actually motivates individuals will we be able to dismiss ineffective solutions.

  • Ineffective at what? "Effectiveness," as opposed to "effect," is another "fact" subject to dramatic manipulation. Effectiveness compared to what? Starting from what baseline? With what regard to cost, and with what regard to who pays? Declaring the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of fixes is a game everyone can play. Civil legal assistance through the Legal Services Corporation had such profound effects that the Republican Party declared it ineffective, waged war on it for a generation, and now young lawyers like yourself can't even imagine the idea of impact litigation on behalf of the poor brought using lawyers paid on federal grants. But that was once not just proposal, but funded, active policy. Is it the problem or the fix that disappeared?

In fact, the idea that reforms could change a process which is perpetuated by the human inability to cope with uncertainty might be little more than an act of the drama itself (see ethics reform, for starters). I think a better metric for evaluation when there is a popular clamor for a fix to the latest problem is whether the proposed solution will further our values on the whole.

  • But that's the same conversation politics is always having. Do the President's health care reform proposals suit our values as a whole? Hence you have the whole immensely ludicrous and completely serious show going on at the moment, as the reorganization of one-seventh of the US economy is again tried, with all the extraordinary mobilization of everyone in the United States who would like to find a few tens of billions lying on the sidewalk, while Sarah Palin talks about how Obama is "evil," and "ordinary citizens" turn up at Democratic congressional town halls to shout against socialism.

So to take an example from class, when we expand SCHIP with a cigarette tax increase we should ask whether, knowing that this is our only chance to tackle children’s health care for several years, we prefer their health over the liberty of citizens who are smokers. Of course, if we are really good, we might even become the people who start the public outcry in the first place!

  • I agree that this draft pulls the essay together much better than the first one did. But you're still left with some weaknesses in the argument. I would recommend looking again at the rhetoric of causation, and at the relationship of the present media-arranged dramatic psychology of politics to the parallel processes of interest-group competition and political career-building.


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r6 - 08 Jan 2010 - 21:12:26 - IanSullivan
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