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Editor’s Notebook: To what end? That is the most important policy question.

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Editor’s Notebook: To what end? That is the most important policy question.

May 16, 2024 | 4:55 am ET
By Dana Wormald
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Editor’s Notebook: To what end? That is the most important policy question.
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"Sometimes the ultimate goal of policy can be so unclear that you have to look for clues in the darkest alleys of intent." (Photo of the U.S. Capitol by Bloomberg Creative | Getty Images)

Policy, in most cases, is about increments rather than endpoints. No single piece of legislation is going to solve New Hampshire’s housing crunch, for example, but a good bill will ease it a little bit now and ideally contribute to a broader solution. That should be relatively easy because available and affordable housing is necessary for any community to thrive, but of course it’s not easy at all, largely because of inherent policy ripples. 

A bill that should be a slam-dunk because it incentivizes housing construction in a state that desperately needs it can quickly become controversial if, say, local communities and their representatives feel sidelined by a blanket state policy. Sometimes opposition can be straight-up suburban NIMBYism but it can also be a lot more complicated, like a state-level process change that conflicts with a revitalization-minded community’s long-term planning goals.

Because of that natural tension, the key to crafting good policy is not only a broad understanding of the issue as it exists but the vision to map out the increments toward a common-good endpoint – like a healthy housing market that respects the rights of individual communities to shape their own future.

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I feel for advocates, lawmakers, and constituents working toward solutions because every proposed increment, for just about every category of legislation, is complex in its own way. And in our system of government, every increment is a battle by design.

While the increments get most of the attention of policy observers and stakeholders, divining the endpoints, or working backward from the endpoint to its increments, is not only a critical exercise but a fascinating one. 

For example, when I think about the challenges for public education in New Hampshire, my mind immediately goes to funding. It’s a bad system, as evidenced by the lawsuits, high property taxes that punish homeowners, and the inequity of financial support from district to district. A ZIP code should play no role in the quality of a public school education – I hope we can at least agree on that – but a sensible solution with enough bipartisan buy-in for passage remains elusive, as do its increments. 

You would think that this state – every state – would make properly funded, equitable public education its unifying perennial moonshot, but that isn’t the case. Instead, some bill writers would rather chase tangential increments that appear to have only fear-driven cruelty or pure curriculum control as their endpoints. 

Sometimes the ultimate goal of policy can be so unclear that you have to look for clues in the darkest alleys of intent.

I wonder: What is the endpoint of legislation targeting LGBTQ+ students, which serve as textbook examples of punching down? Incrementally, these bills are about eradicating the myriad fears of traditionalists by preserving preferred norms and conditions. But what’s the goal? That transgender students are silenced completely, ostracized universally, eliminated in every way possible from public view and perception? And why? So nobody who is attached to the “preferred norms and conditions” is uncomfortable? Is it part of the broader political revolt against tolerance, inclusion, and empathy, each of which is popularly framed as weakness and wokeness by those same traditionalists? And what is the endpoint of that broad revolt – to once and for all trade the melting-pot myth for an expanded American caste system?

What is the endpoint for squeezing the scope of American public school curricula and banning books from our libraries? So that children are intellectual photocopies of their parents, which is the same sinister goal they accuse educators of pursuing? To make sure that American students don’t ask too many uncomfortable questions about the nation’s history or its direction? And if that is the case, what is gained through that cultivated ignorance? How are we to legitimately foster the free exchange of ideas – a bulwark of the republic – if access to information is systemically suppressed?

I don’t know what’s in the hearts of supporters of such increments, but I sincerely hope they do. Honest policy conversations require each thread to be unraveled to its end – no matter how uncomfortable the process or what truths we learn about ourselves once we get there.