Guns, too. If your theory of change is that it would take a tragedy of unthinkable proportions to change gun policy—and I’m not even talking about an outright ban—then your theory has been proven wrong time and again. [True story—I glanced at the online headlines this morning and saw something about someone “shooting 61.” I immediately began to freak out until I realized it was a golf score.]
In my area of economics, unless we change course and enact the policy agenda to reconnect overall growth with middle-class prosperity and poverty reduction, economic inequality will continue to generate severely unbalanced economic outcomes. Unless we seriously pursue financial market oversight, the economic shampoo cycle—bubble, bust, repeat—will reassert itself.
Once you start seeing things through this lens of dysfunction equilibrium—being stuck in a situation where we can neither effectively diagnose what’s wrong nor prescribe and implement solutions—you see it in lots of places. In what is allegedly the 34th time in the last decade, Congress is poised to enact another patch in the highway trust fund, this time for only three months. Clearly that’s a ridiculous outcome when it comes to supporting what is no less than the veins and arteries of commerce in one the world’s most advanced economies.
The problem in this case is the lack of willingness to raise the gas tax that supports the trust fund. As I’ve ranted many times on this page, this tax has been stuck at about 18 cents/gallon for over 20 years, with no adjustment for either inflation or improved mileage. Somehow, perhaps through the magic of magical thinking, we’re supposed to believe that we can continue to support our roads, bridges and mass transit systems through a source whose purchasing power is down almost 40 percent.
How do you change a national mindset like that?
Most recently, I was pondering this question in the context of Jon Stewart’s decision to leave the Daily Show later this week. One theory of change might be that if a brilliant mind like Stewart’s could only pull back the curtain and show us what’s really going on, as he did nightly, the scales would fall from our eyes and we’d be motivated to change course.
Yet, in this wonderfully resonant take on Stewart’s lasting contribution to our lives, Hank Steuver mentions in passing that for all the consciousness-raising that Stewart brought us—and made it go down “like butta”—it can’t be said that he influenced outcomes. I wonder, if in his somber and trenchant reaction to the recent racially-motivated massacre in Charleston, Stewart was himself reflecting on the fact that this theory of change has not panned out.
Okay, I readily admit this is all way too heavy for a Monday morning in August. So let me quickly shift to what inspired me to write about it this morning: I see some light. There are a number of examples of incremental change underway, which is the best you can hope for, and I think they reveal something important about the theory. In the words of journalist Michael Grunwald: DO STUFF!
Along with initially scary golf scores, the other thing I read in the paper this morning was the announcement of the President’s new rule proposing to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by almost a third below their 2005 levels by 2030 (true, emissions are already down by about half that since 2005, but the plan is still an important piece of the broader agenda).
On the gas tax, states both blue and red are taking it upon themselves to raise the tax. Similarly, the “Fight for $15,” led by low-wage workers and supported in part by unions, powers on as a potent antidote to wage inequality. I’d say the same for the new overtime rule that will lift the living standards of millions of mid-income, working Americans.
Some will immediately get bogged down in the reality of implementing these ideas. Others will claim that the overtime and minimum wage rules will backfire. Some will complain that the higher gas tax is regressive or that the new clean air standards will get stuck in the courts.
There are good counterarguments to all of the above—I’ve featured many myself. But that’s not the point. Here, I’d like to share what I think these actions teach us about the theory of change.
It is possible, even probable, that these ideas, if they can come to fruition, will alter societal norms in positive ways. Once OT rules better reflect the true value of peoples’ time, we may do a better job of balancing work and family. Enforcing a more equitable distribution of productivity growth helps to solve a pervasive market failure, and again, values people and their work in a way that’s been lacking for decades.
We can waste years arguing the science of climate change with ideologically motivated non-believers, or we can act, by fiat in this case, to change practices that will then become embedded in the system as the new normal.
I’m not suggesting I’ve figured out change theory. In essence, this approach says forget theory, just act. Just do your best to implement useful changes where they’re needed and stop noodling over esoteric theories and gridlocked politics. And yes, that raises the question of who gets to decide what’s “useful.” I’d amend Gundwald to say “DO GOOD STUFF!” but I readily recognize the cul-de-sac at the end of that road.
Still, when it’s something that the vast majority of us feel similarly about, like environmental sustainability, rewarding work, even preventing guns from falling into the wrong hands, the key to change is to push through the noise and make the change where you can. As my Iranian friend tells me, “the dogs will bark but the caravan goes on.”
In other words, my evolving theory of change is: more change, less theory.