The folly of easy solutions
IT’S HUMAN nature to avoid tough problems, using a combination of pretense and fantasy to wish them away. Three recent examples come to mind.
The battle over raising the debt ceiling centered on coming up with a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases that would narrow the country’s deficit. Unable to agree, Congress resolved the problem by punting: It specified an amount - $1.5 trillion over 10 years - and set up a committee to make the hard choices.
We’ve heard this before, haven’t we? Just last December, the Simpson-Bowles committee came out with its own proposal to resolve the deficit. The bold plan received much comment and then promptly fell into the legislative dustbin.
This time around will be different, proponents promise. Composed of 12 members - six Republicans and six Democrats, including Senator John Kerry - the so-called super committee has until Nov. 12 to come up with a list of cuts and revenue increases, which then goes to Congress for an up-or-down vote no later than Dec. 23. The hammer that the committee has is that, if its recommendations get rejected, a host of undesirable across-the-board cuts goes into effect.
Granted, that hammer does make the super committee different from the toothless Simpson-Bowles. But the problem with recommendations from past committees also composed of smart, well-intentioned people wasn’t that they lacked power. It’s that enough people didn’t agree with them. The super committee was just Congress’s way of avoiding a difficult issue for a few months. The battles of August will doubtless be rejoined in December.
At home, Massachusetts has just ended a tax-free weekend, a (mostly) annual gift from the Legislature whose main purpose, it seems, is to make residents wonder why they shouldn’t move to New Hampshire. The illusion of the tax-free holiday is that we can both have taxes and not have taxes.
This year, 17 states will have sales tax holidays, which are wildly popular. Retailers use them to pump up sales while politicians claim to their constituents they are helping their pocketbooks. The problem is that such holidays are a gimmick. Studies suggest they do little to increase overall retail sales (they just change the timing of those sales), they don’t save consumers much (retailers often just raise prices during the holidays), they impose a significant cost on state budgets (the estimate is that up to $25 million will be lost in Massachusetts), and, as the nonpartisan Tax Foundation points out, they “distract policymakers and taxpayers from genuine, permanent tax relief.’’ If the sales tax rate is too high, by all means reduce it year round. But in fact, two years ago we actually increased our sales tax by 25 percent. Bay State pols are just trying to have it both ways.
Meanwhile, college administrators are trumpeting a new program, AlcoholEdu, that curbs binge drinking, and a new study seems to confirm it works. The program - a three-hour online course - reduces risky behavior by freshmen who take it during the fall semester. Alas, the effects seem short lived; by the spring, the study notes, the students are back to bingeing.
That should be no surprise. We have a contradictory approach to alcohol. It is deeply ingrained in our culture yet we have no idea of how to introduce it to children. Those ages 18 to 21 are regarded as adults in all ways but one: we prohibit them from drinking. Instead of alcohol being part of something - a glass of wine, say, at a meal - it is forced into becoming a secretive event in and of itself. Trying to teach kids not to drink may work in the short term, but in the long term we need to teach them how to drink, something the law says we are not allowed to do.
The thread of all these fantasies is a kind of self-delusion: believing an easy tactic - a congressional committee, a weekend respite from taxes, or an online course - will somehow solve a hard problem. But hard problems require hard solutions. If they didn’t, fantasies notwithstanding, they would have been solved by now.
Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe.