Intractable problems

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Why do so many of the social issues we currently face appear to be intractable?
I think one of the reasons is that many problems in our society are treated as having a very limited range of solutions — as being black and white, leaning left or right, offering a choice of yes or no, take it or leave it.  
A few issues may really present such a stark choice, at least sometimes. But most problems are susceptible to compromise, if people are honest about it.
Sometimes options are limited because of the forum in which an issue is being addressed. Concerning the recent trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, our courts require a clear verdict and a unanimous one at that. Guilty or not guilty?
But we all know that this is because our legal code requires establishing criminal guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Certainly reasonable doubts cloud the space between innocence and guilt in nearly every human interaction. But to reach a verdict, we have to say, “If there’s a reasonable doubt, there’s no criminal conviction.”
Should a civil trial follow, with a very different burden of proof, it may well produce a different result.
What about issues being debated in the forum of the world press? Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks would like to treat the NSA’s gathering of metadata as presenting us with a vivid choice. To them and others, it seems we have lost our cherished freedoms as Americans and become pawns of Big Brother.
On the other hand, a number of world leaders and individuals involved in diplomacy and international affairs suggest that gathering intelligence from enemies, allies and even our own citizens is quite old hat and universally done.
More nuanced commentators point to the checks and balances over the NSA — the congressional committees, courts and judges who take competing interests into account and oversee the process. Because national security is at stake, the debates take place out of the public eye, but the NSA’s requests are indeed judged and regulated.
Seen in this light, the question is: Where do we stand along the continuum? Do we need to balance the interests differently?
Looking closer to home, what about the heated debates over whether Walmart should be allowed to open in communities such as the District of Columbia?
On one side there are those who argue that Walmart should be welcomed for providing quality produce and goods at affordable prices and creating hundreds of jobs for local citizens.
On the other side are those who say that huge stores like Walmart decimate small and independent businesses and pay low wages that workers cannot live on.
The decision is typically presented in many communities as a clear choice, presenting an up or down vote. The D.C. City Council has brought an element of compromise to the issue by voting to require a minimum pay scale for large employers like Walmart.
Perhaps that could be seen as a middle-ground approach, but it ought to have been introduced at the start of the process, not as an afterthought once three stores were under construction.
Finally, I turn to the issue of government entitlements: Social Security and Medicare. Here, too, we hear arguments setting up a battle to the death.
Seniors who have long been promised a secure retirement with inflation adjustments — who worked hard for decades, fought in national wars, scrimped and saved for years — feel it’s completely unfair to change the rules at this time of their lives.
Others point out that rising longevity has extended by decades the years that benefits are being paid, and that the retirement of the baby boom generation just now getting underway will, in a few years, be diverting two-thirds of discretionary federal dollars to senior programs, to the detriment of every other government program, including those for children, education, research, transportation and more.
Here, I think it should be clear that a variety of solutions exist. Yes, there are competing interests and legitimate points to be made on both sides. But there are also ways of adjusting payments to help the truly needy by reducing benefits to the truly wealthy without undermining the whole enterprise.
I have written many times about the changes that can be carefully crafted to protect those already retired or close to retirement. And I have pointed out that relatively subtle adjustments to different elements of Social Security and Medicare can spread the pain among different groups, over a period of many years.
Yes, some problems are intractable, and a rare few may even present a zero-sum game. But if we’re willing to step back and listen to each other, admit there are good arguments on both sides, and make a serious effort at compromise, we may find that many of our most divisive issues can be reasonably resolved.
I certainly believe entitlement reform is capable of such a solution, and I urge everyone to start considering it. We owe it to ourselves and to our progeny.