It’s Complicated

“It’s complicated”. Jon Stewart tweaked Obama last week for repeatedly framing his approach to issues with this phrase, and he’s not the first to do so. That complaint was very likely the reason why Obama felt the need to awkwardly declaim that the reason he consults with experts is that he’s trying to make sure that he kicks the right asses.

Since many issues are in fact complicated, it’s hard for me to say that it’s wrong to say that they are.

Stewart suggests that Obama could just simplify those complicated issues. Fair enough. More to the point, though, I think what you can do is simplify the reasons why something’s complicated, because not all complexity is created equal and not all complexity demands an equally complicated political or personal response.

Policies and issues are complicated because:

1) Complication: the political and institutional process by which decisions are reached and implemented is very multilayered and decentralized, maybe to the point that it’s not even clear who actually would be in charge of implementing a policy. Simplification: clearly describe to your publics what you want to do, delegate someone to get it done, and make it clear that somebody’s getting fired and/or agencies are getting shut down if it doesn’t happen. (If that’s not just a posture, then start setting up a quiet process of internal organizational reform intended to improve implementation of decisions.)

2) Complication: the political process of implementing a decision involves exquisitely intricate compromises that are so carefully calculated that they would collapse if they were spoken of directly. Simplification: in a deal of this kind, all the parties want to come to an agreement, but generally need to be seen to be delivering contradictory results to their divergent constituencies. So here I think the simple thing is that someone in a leadership positions has to be willing to scuttle the deal if the participants are so sensitive that they’re keeping it from happening, and to let everyone understand that. (The barb here might be to make it privately clear that you’re going to pick someone as the fall guy if that happens, with attendant pressures to follow.) But yes, this kind of complication ties your hands when it comes to simplifying things for a wider public. That’s just what happens with some decisions in life. Happens all the time in family or personal life, for example, where getting everyone on the same page means not talking too explicitly about what’s going on.

3) Complication: the technical issues involved in a policy problem are authentically difficult; it’s not clear that there is a viable technical solution to the problem as it stands. Simplification: be really clear about the moral, ethical or social stakes involved in the issue. Be equally clear that you’re really screwed on the technical front. Technical complexity doesn’t need to occlude moral or ethical commitments. And sometimes you really should just get up and say, “Look, for the moment, we’re just fucked, ok?”

4) Complication: the moral or ethical issues involved are authentically ambiguous. E.g., this is the kind of thing that adults say to each other when they have desires they’d rather not have, take actions they wish they hadn’t taken, have feelings that they can’t resolve, can’t decide whether to rob Peter or pay Paul, or know full well that no matter what you do, a good person is going to get screwed or cheated. Simplication: there isn’t any beyond brutal honesty. This is the point where you say to your publics, “It’s time to be grown-ups together and stop asking Daddy to buy you the pretty bauble in the window and make all the bad monsters magically go away.”

So which of these applies to the current situation with the oil spill, or to health care? 1 and 2, certainly. With the spill, 3). I’m not sure 3) is much involved in health care: I think it’s an alibi that lets policy-makers and stakeholders pretend that they’re still researching and have yet to find the correct technical answer.

4)? Not much involved in the oil spill at all, unless you really feel that the answer to energy dependency really is “drill baby drill”. In which case, sure, get up and say, “Look, grow up, this is the eggs breaking that are needed to make the energy omelet”. We’ve had plenty of Serious People telling us that you need torture and assassination and expensive invasions and violations of the Constitution to fight terrorists, so why not some Serious People telling us that obtaining oil from our own waters or land is worth any negative consequences. Is 4) involved in health care? Maybe, if you think that our decisions in that arena will always and inevitably amount to some kind of rationing of a scarce resource.

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