Most politicians would rather take refuge in the comfort of big ideas than risk voter retribution by trying to solve specific problems. It’s both easier and more comfortable to stick with liberal or conservative nostrums than to roll up one’s sleeves and gamble on new initiatives that could reduce the pain of poverty, diminish safety-net dependency, and actually offer people a leg up to economic independence.
Sermons about big government vs. small government, high taxes or low taxes may woo voters at election time but solve little or nothing in the long run. For that, we need to identify key flaws in the system and fix them individually, not with speeches but with action. America’s middle class is shrinking. Our fastest growing class is now the working poor – who wouldn’t work the long hours at low pay that they do – only to remain poor – if they had a real choice.
Politicians love to talk about how tough they are on crime, appealing to statistically-unsupported citizen fears. Then they fret about spending $150M to keep people in our seven Vermont jails at an annual per-prisoner cost that exceeds that of college. There are 630,000 Vermonters and 10 million Swedes, but our prison population is 2200, while Sweden’s is 4500 and they just closed four empty prisons. They have the same crime rates we do – but maybe they know something we don’t. Perhaps some of the 150 women in South Burlington costing almost $80,000 per inmate per year – most of whom are non-violent offenders – could return to society under accountable supervision in Burlington, Champlain, VT Tech, Green Mountain or Sterling Colleges at a third of the price and half the recidivism rate… but we’d rather preach about being tough on crime.
And we complain about the high cost and poor outcomes of health care. We debate the benefits of a national health care system vs. free market health care and miss the small opportunities to provide better and cheaper health care to our citizens. Healthcare and higher education, are among our most important economic drivers but they’ll have to be re-engineered to accommodate affordable, universal access.
Vermont can’t afford fourteen competitive community hospitals. A key reform will require re-deploying primary care doctors and nurses to local clinics and using emergency rooms solely for emergencies. We need a network of evenly distributed health services to be used preventively, and at the onset of illness, instead of at the emergent level.
It’s also a challenge to sustain six state-supported colleges – in addition to 62 supervisory unions, 362 school districts, and 19,000 teachers for 85,000 students. But who really wants to advocate for replacing a local hospital with an accessible clinic or a local high school with a regional one?
This session our leaders need to embrace the complexity of small fixes in order to lower costs and improve outcomes. The working poor can’t afford to debate political philosophy; they resolve daily problems in order to survive.