It Can’t Be A Good Idea If You Agree With Me

Charlie Arlinghaus

April 4, 2012

As originally publish in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Good public policy can be boring and complicated. It often gets in the way of a good political argument. All too often, we support or oppose ideas because of who sponsored them not what they are. It’s a lot easier and stops us from having to think too much.

The evil twins who run the world from the right and the left are apparently named Koch and Soros. You may recall two years ago when then-chairman of the House Ways and Means committee Rep. Susan Almy was roundly castigated because she had a hearing on taxes in New Hampshire and one of the national speakers was from a group funded in part by the left wing billionaire George Soros.

At the time, I protested the protesters arguing that it was sensible that the tax committee of the House might actually discuss taxes. Further, the agenda was by any measurement balanced not just because it included me (although isn’t that enough?) but because the other two speakers were from a center-right think tank (the Tax Foundation) and the solidly conservative legislative foundation ALEC (yes, the good liberal Susan Almy brought the evil conservative ALEC to New Hampshire).

But for some, debate is unhealthy and instead the taint of Mr. Soros demanded anyone infected not be allowed to be heard. The conservative paranoia about Mr. Soros has a counterpart this year in liberal caterwauling about the chimerical Koch brothers.

Ideas are neither good nor bad. Debating them isn’t worth the time of your opponents. Instead, they need to create a bogeyman whose specter makes argument superfluous. I don’t need to explain that this is a bad idea. I merely have to utter the magic words Soros/Koch and all is explained.

I, for example, am accused regularly of being a puppet of the Koch brothers –unfortunately without the mitigating effect of actual donations from them. I’m thinking of applying for a grant by asking them “if I get accused of being your tool enough, shouldn’t we give in to what everyone wants? Please?”

In reality, it’s a compliment or would be if any of the accusers were sensible people. People confident in their ideas debate them. Those who merely don’t like “people like you” can’t debate ideas so they resort to silly attacks.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t further public policy, solve the problems of the day, or improve anyone’s life. It does, however, make for good entertainment. Cable “news” channels (and let’s be honest, they’re all more or less the same) excel in these substance free arguments.

There is a stepchild of this sort of non-argument. It’s softer but also problematic. We tend to ignore ideas proposed by a political opponent. Proposed by a friend, we might give it the benefit of the doubt and try to work on the details.

An obvious example of this is that the national Democrats respond to any Republican proposal on entitlements as “ending Medicare as we know it.” The ideas may be similar to other proposals by their friends or ones contained in the president’s commission but nothing sells voters like “ending Medicare as we know it.” The analogous attack on the other side is Republican angst about deficits that seemed to have only developed after George Bush left office. Bush deficits, fine. Obama deficits, bad.

There are smaller examples locally but one worth talking about is government reform. Although I have been quite critical of many of Governor Lynch’s fiscal choices, past results are not an indicator of future performance. The governor proposed consolidating 34 state licensing boards into one board of licensure to achieve overhead savings. This is a great idea.

Many conservatives have talked about finding efficiencies in government through combining functions and centralizing back office operating for efficiencies. Instead of 34 separate offices, boards, administrations, bookkeepers, little mini-departments, why not have one? In addition, decisions about which professions need licensing and which don’t are somewhat easier if there isn’t an office depending on it.

But there’s an obstacle. As one advocate of combining offices and merging overhead functions in other parts of state government said to me “but it’s Lynch’s idea.” Apparently, good ideas become bad if they’re proposed by a governor you don’t care for.

The idea is currently hibernating. The Senate gutted the bill and replaced it with something entirely different. I hope they rejected the plan, the perfect embodiment of the narrative under which the majority of them were elected,  because they have grave concerns about geologists and practitioners of reflexology each needing their own separate board, staff, and overhead. That’s possible, right?