To bypass the rage and righteousness around an issue, and move toward solving it, we first have to convince ourselves that solving it is impossible.
That's the thesis of Andrew Sullivan's piece today, "Why the Healthcare Question is Insoluble." He's talking about healthcare in the US context, but few countries have achieved widespread contentment on the issue. I'm not sure you can expect widespread contentment on an issue that requires thinking about sickness and death, at least not at humanity's current level of spiritual development.
My work on transit policy has always come from the same existential position that Andrew lays out. Like every family working out its budget, societies have to make choices between different things that they value. As in healthcare, arguments about these choices often use pre-emptive appeals to compassion or justice to shift our attention away from the the real choice. Government actions that are "compassionate" or that address "civil rights" seem to be responding to an absolute standard of goodness and truth, but often, they still cost money, possibly more money than any government can expect to spend.
I'm very glad to be in transit instead of healthcare, because a few hours debating healthcare makes transit problems look easy. Easy, but still impossible.
By easy that I mean that the questions are relatively easy to frame (Connections or complexity? Ridership or coverage? Wide stop spacing or close?) and it's not too hard to explain (a) the consequence of each choice and (b) why the choice is geometrically unavoidable. Laying out those questions is the main work of my current book project.
But once you lay out those questions, you have to pause and see that by their nature, there's no answer that everyone will like. There may not even be an answer that a majority will like. And in that sense, the task of resolving the issue is impossible.
The geometry of transit tells us that each of these choices gives us a spectrum of possibilities. A transit network can go to the extreme of relying on connections, and thus minimizing complexity, or it can go to the extreme of avoiding connections, which maximizes complexity, but every time you move toward one desired outcome, you move away from another one. That's how a spectrum works. And you can appeal to "civil rights" or "compassion" or "common sense" or "the needs of working families" as much as you want; those appeals may prod policymakers to move one way or the other, but they don't change the geometry. In fact, they're dangerous to the degree that they encourage us not to notice what has to be sacrificed to move in the direction that the speaker advocates.
My experience with many transit agencies is that everyone is a little scared of stating these questions in such a simple way, because it means you really have to answer them. And answering them requires accepting, with some humility, that any possible decision will leave many people outraged. Faced with the courage that this requires, it's tempting to retreat into the confusion. It's tempting to want the issue to be complicated so that you'll never be called to account for making a clear, stark choice of this over that -- even though true leadership lies exactly in the willingness to make those choices. So when an issue seems complicated, we always need to ask, "what interests are being served by the sheer complexity of this issue?" "Can the issue actually be made simple?"
I'm not sure that can be done for healthcare, but bravo to Andrew Sullivan for trying. I am pretty sure it can be done for many of the main debates in transit policy, and that's the core of my work right now.