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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

The Paucity of Policy
April 8, 2013 - 4:36pm

U.S. political culture suffers from a paucity of policy qua policy thinking. In this sense, I refer to "Big 'P' " policy, as in national policy. Whether about medical care, gun control or international relations, this paucity exists, and technology and education are no exceptions. The effect is pernicious. In technology, it lends itself to such issues as "crisis in cyber-security," "the growing digital divides" or the "dangerous diminution of privacy."  In education, the rhetoric revolves around "the failures of our (K-12) schools," "the exorbitant price of education" and, more frightening, the very "meaning of higher education."  Experienced as single issues, these headline-grabbers reach the public in a "chicken-little" emotional manner with few to no comprehensive links or associations to help politicians and the populous work clearly through remedial options.

The result is stunted thinking and the absence of good solutions. Moreover, the frustrations that mount as a result of these failures create their own destructive feedback loop. The iterative process of our judicial system, referendums and recall politics ruminate the issues causing paralysis in Congress.

One could write volumes on this subject, but let me try to be concise. This paucity is part of U.S. culture and traditions. A written constitution and an open market originally provided this country with all the policy it need up to the Civil War. Given the overwhelming governmental influence of the war, in the subsequent years, when European countries were beginning to create policy, the United States stayed away from it. Thus, there was no planning given to the development of corporations, or the three most influential movements at the turn of the last century: immigration, industrialization and urbanization -- except in the hands of the historical "losers": populist, workers', socialist and communistic parties, with some minor exceptional note to the Progressive Party which did attempt to bring labor, women's and some social issues under one umbrella. Three amendments to the Constitution were as high-level as most "policy" thinking achieved in this era: income tax, prohibition and women's right to vote.  

It took the Great Depression and the New Deal to address labor in a meaningful (even if not wholly satisfactory) way (and reverse Prohibition). Retrospectively, one can ascribe a certain kind of policy thinking to those years, but contemporarily Roosevelt was no more of a policy wonk than most of the politicians who opposed him. In fact, as a progressive, one could argue that Hoover understood a concept of policy better than Roosevelt, but had timing misfortune. Cold War politics and a domestic policy pendulum swing from Johnson's "Great Society" to Reagan's "Retrenched Society" (my descriptive title) was about as policy-laden as the post World War Two U.S. culture ever got.

So it is no wonder that we stand before the 21st century relatively barren of thought as how to think forward. Oh sure, so long as the economy is strong, for example in the Clinton years (a coincidence, not a causal relationship), a free market perspective that buries the hidden costs of innovation (including grants for academic research) as well as the price of economic development (ridiculously widened gap between rich and poor, for example) flourishes in the stead of policy.

When the chips are down, everyone scrambles for answers, as has been true in the aftermath of the economic downturn beginning in 2008, but unfortunately the most noted effects are the emergence of simplistic, fundamentalist political thought, such as the Tea Party, or liberal cant that repeats bromides such as "more innovation!"  "more productivity!"  "more jobs!!!"  Few rue the absence of a comprehensive approach to regard society, politics and culture holistically and in an thoughtful global context.

Why have I chatted you all up about this aspect? Because as I explore the issues of law, technology and policy over the next few months I will refer back to this foundational gap. The issues mentioned above under the topics of education and technology are just a taste. We can explore them all we want. But without something larger, more complex and forward-thinking, don't expect much.


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