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August 21, 2008

Simple Isnít The Answer

Tony Soltero

My high-school American history teacher was one of the best educators I ever had. He didn't mess around – he treated us tenth-graders like mature adults. He simply assumed that we were keeping up with the reading, and if someone didn't, he wasn't going to slow down the class for his benefit.


We learned to adapt quickly. As a result, we covered the entire story of the nation in two semesters – and had a week to spare at the end to discuss the upcoming electoral battle between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.


My teacher didn't tip his hand as to whom he favored, but in his final lecture of the year, he left us with a warning that has always stayed with me: "Beware of leaders who try to provide simple solutions to complex problems." He cited Hitler as an example – "the way to solve Germany's economic problems is by getting rid of the Jews." And he told us to look out for that kind of rhetoric in our own political races – both locally and nationally.


Sure enough, that kind of empty, simple-solution rhetoric was all over the place once you learned to recognize it. And we still see it today. Actually, we see it now more than ever. How do we solve the immigration problem? Build a fence! How do we deal with gas prices? Why, drill more, or course! Why is the economy so bad? Because we haven't gotten rid of the estate tax yet, silly! How can you tell if a politician is patriotic? By the flag lapel pins he wears. Duh!


Unfortunately, in the real world, complex problems do not lend themselves to simple solutions. And our attraction to quick-fix, short-term, feel-good "solutions" to overarching national and international problems has damaged our nation in countless ways.


So, when it becomes obvious that one-dimensional, small-minded approaches to solving problems aren't working, it's next to impossible to do anything about it because there are a lot of egos invested in maintaining the illusion that the simple solution is functioning as advertised.


To pick a relatively trivial but extremely revealing example, consider the current controversy over the ;proposal to lower Maryland’s drinking age to 18, where it had been for many years before it became the current 21.


The drinking age was raised in 1984 during a wave of Reagan-era authoritarianism. Eighteen-year-olds are perceived to be drinking too much? Simple solution – make it illegal! Problem solved!


As an aside, alleged states-rights champion Ronald Reagan coerced states into raising their drinking ages by threatening to withhold federal highway money. Republican hypocrisy? Shocking, I know.


So, we wound up with the absurd situation in which an 18-year-old is deemed mature enough to be sent off to kill and die in war, but is not mature enough to enjoy a little wine with his meal. And making it illegal for an 18-year-old to drink did little to reduce the problem of teenage alcohol abuse.


It more frequently drove the problem underground, adding an extra layer of difficulty to get help for those young people who have a problem with alcohol. Who's going to seek out help for an addiction when it involves potentially getting arrested?


The same applies to harder drugs, by the way. However, our media culture doesn't currently allow us to talk about that. So we're stuck with the simple solution of the "war on drugs" that has accomplished zilch in actually reducing drug abuse, but has been enormously successful in populating our prisons with otherwise productive citizens. But that's a whole different story in and of itself.


As tempting as it might be to try to solve our problems just by passing laws against them, and then washing our hands and walking away, it's not always, or perhaps even not usually, the wisest course of action. Unfortunately, our political discourse has become so dumbed down in the age of talk radio that seductively simple solutions remain wildly popular – even well after it's been proven that they don't work.


Which is, in a nutshell, why Republicans, after eight years of trashing the country and the Constitution, need to be banished to the margins of American political life for a generation or two. Their simple solutions have been a disaster for America – and we can't afford to give them any more opportunities to continue.


We have one candidate, John McCain, who rattles off dopey, simplistic sound bites, and another one, Barack Obama, who offers thoughtful, nuanced approaches to our problems.


We've done it McCain's way long enough. It's time to move away from the simple solution.


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