Over the past year, both sides raged against our political system. From the Black Lives Matter protests that occupied cities throughout the summer, to the rioters who took over the Capitol because their president lost, our system appears broken.
Who is our political system really working for? In early March, politicians announced they’d reduce the amount of money given to the unemployed and the length of the benefits. This, meanwhile, comes while billions of dollars went to companies as grants or loans.
The old way of thinking goes that giving people money makes them lazy or creates a perpetual underemployed class. This argument has been to various degrees debunked (most thoroughly by the Center for American Progress), but there’s a lasting truth, that poor Americans are far more likely to be poor than wealthy Americans from one generation to another. And there’s a very real, often ignored or misdiagnosed aspect of poverty directly tied to race. Black children are nearly nine times more likely to be persistently poor than white children.
Today, political “conversation” is hyperbolic, laden with inaccuracies and not based in science at all. For example, it’s passable in 2021 to say that Black Americans are poor because they’re lazy. In a study in 2017, 55 percent of Republicans agreed that “African Americans face more poverty due to lack of motivation and willpower.” This is an improvement, it’s worth noting, on the 60 percent who said that in 2010.
But, let’s be honest with ourselves here, Democrats haven’t done much to either improve the social safety net nor defend the social programs that have been a major pillar of their platform since at least the 60s. In fact, if we include Bill Clinton, then the Democrats also passed legislation that led to greatly increasing the number of incarcerated Black men and in some ways destroyed welfare.
I think the problem is more fundamental, though, than just a weird partisan divide and people basically shouting at one another because they’re afraid of dying (yeah, I buy it that this goes off on a tangent, but there’s some interesting work about how desperately trying to convince people that you’re right is essentially an ego trip based on the idea that you’ll one day be forgotten.) I think the problem is our discourse is not rooted in a tangible, independent verification process. It’s easy to amount a different side’s arguments as “opinion” or to dismiss facts or to believe in Qanon, because there’s no real, rational benefit to being correct and there’s no punishment for being wrong. Bad ideas are allowed to live indefinitely, and stupid thinking is tolerated as an important part of the liberal creed.
I may have misread my Karl Popper, but basically, that, I think, is wrong. One idea wins over another in a society because it works better. What our system should incentivize is the broadest benefit, and, instead, it has been corrupted by a litany of half truths or outright lies.
I think the solution is a new political party — one that’s based on science and the scientific method. I’m not naive enough to think it’ll actually happen, but I’d like to imagine a world where it exists, nonetheless.
What are the benefits? Well, I’m glad you asked.
- You can change a scientifically minded person’s opinion. When there’s an independently verifiable process and testing methodology, the truth, regardless of how surprising, strange and counter intuitive comes out. Scientists are the ultimate truthseekers, and they posit wild, sometimes unbelievable theories (like the earth revolves around the sun, or the world is round or that we are one of nearly an infinite set of universes). When applied to policy, this could introduce new, incredible changes for beneficial outcomes. Which leads me to my next point…
- The conversation shifts to one about outcomes. The scientific method does not work without something to test against it. I.e. you have to have an outcome that you’re trying to experiment against. Do we as a country want to have more people in poverty or fewer? Do we want to have every person in the country receive an education? Should the government provide basic services like clean water and trash pickup? Does GDP grow with greater access to technology? Seriously, when was the last time that not only politicians talked about the outcome they were testing against, but then accepted the results when they were wrong?
- We accept that the first attempt won’t be perfect, but we’re working to make things perfect. And getting it wrong will happen. The beauty of the scientific method is that it celebrates failure. It celebrates learning something. Methods could be used to ensure that many people are not harmed, and we could seize on the rich datasets already available (for example, does cutting taxes lead to growth? Not if you ask Kansas).
- But we’ll start to solve problems. Over time, the solutions to policy questions will become codified, and eventually, the process will even be sped up. Is it better for a society to not have lead in the water? We pretend like we know the answer to that question, then we do nothing about the 500,000 children who have elevated lead in their system and the 9.2 million homes that have lead pipes. Why? Because it’s their responsibility, even though their children having good jobs and educations could lead to better outcomes for my children. (Plus, com’on look at Flint.)
- We’ll take seriously any number of problems before it becomes too late. We are dangerously close to being unable to solve the Climate Change crisis. And, historically, only in times of crisis do we actually seek to remedy the problems. But scientists first issued warnings about a warming planet in the 1950s, and measured the greenhouse effect from carbon dioxide in the late 19th century. Imagine the world now had we listened to the science and developed the technology for renewable resources in the 1950s and 60s.
Like I said, I don’t have high hopes for either party to adopt a scientifically minded approach to policy. It requires the admission of failure far too often, and the ability to tell voters that you’re willing to experiment, in some ways, with their lives or livelihoods. In truth, though, isn’t that what policymakers are doing today? When they refuse to adopt universal health care, aren’t they saying that “freedom” for insurance and medical professionals is more important than a poor person’s life? Why can’t we at least be honest about it?
The truth about America is that we put our money on things that we value. And in that sense, we especially value medical professionals, people who can make money (i.e. investment bankers and CEOs), and people who entertain us (professional athletes and actors/actresses). We do not value to the same degree teachers, agricultural workers, people who prep our food, cashiers, and the people who take care of our children. This isn’t an issue nationally because the wealthy who value those things can pay special, often exorbitant, rates for the best in each field, while the poor live in a culture that repeatedly tells them they’re not good enough until they’re wealthy.