December 09, 2009

Problems and conditions

Seamus McGoogle has problems.

The theme at Goat Rope this stretch is how laws and policies get made, a process that Bismarck famously compared with sausage making.

One factor that seems to affect whether an issue will gain any traction in the policy arena has to do with how it is seen. As John Kingdon, author of Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies suggests, it makes a big different whether something is seen as a problem or a condition. In his words,

There is a difference between a condition and a problem. We put up with all manner of conditions every day: bad weather, unavoidable and untreatable illnesses, pestilence, poverty, fanaticism... Conditions become defined as problems when we come to believe that we should do something about them. Problems are not simply the conditions or external events themselves; there is also a perceptual, interpretive element.

To use climate change as an example, opponents of addressing either tend to deny it altogether or else to claim that it is not happening as a result of human activity, which would make it a condition rather than a problem.

Defining exactly what is and isn't a problem is a game with high political stakes. As Kingdon put it,

...Some are helped and others hurt, depending on how problems get defined. If things are going basically your way, for instance, you want to convince others that there are no problems out there.

Conversely, if things are not going your way, it makes sense to "define the problem in such a way as to place the burden of adjustment elsewhere, and to avoid changing one's own patterns."

From an advocacy standpoint, one of the most important tasks is to work to raise an issue from something seen as a condition to something seen as a political problem, one that has a solution. The unequal treatment of African Americans, for example, was seen as a condition in much of the country until the civil rights movement elevated to the level of a political problem.

But getting something to be seen as a problem on the public agenda is only part of the struggle. The next phase has to do with sorting out the specific alternatives, about which more later.

SPEAKING OF PROBLEMS, President Obama laid out his proposals for stimulating employment yesterday.

SPEAKING OF JOBS, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that plenty of those will be lost without additional aid to states.

HEALTH CARE. Wheeling and dealing galore is going on in the US Senate. Some good things on the table now are further expansions of Medicaid and a Medicare buy-in for workers 55 and over. The latter measure is one long proposed by WV Senator Jay Rockefeller and would help meet a huge need. Here's hoping both of those survive. Here's the latest as of late Tuesday night.

RANT ALL YOU WANT about those intercepted emails, but climate change isn't slowing down to fit the news cycle.

PERSONAL NOTE. El Cabrero is headed to DC the rest of the week for a conference on state fiscal policy. I'm such a geek that this is one of the high points of my year. The coolest part is that I plan on taking a train to get there. Trains are cool. Goat Rope should continue to appear as usual.

Also, this post was scheduled for publication late Tuesday. If anything bad happens between now and Wednesday, please accept condolences.


No comments: