Why Do We Ignore People in Our Policy Arguments?

Have you noticed that our politicians and policymakers tend to ignore the human cost of inaction and focus more of their arguments on the actual, monetary cost of action? And the argument of “it will save money!” is far more persuasive for people than “it will save lives!”?

Ezra Klein posted yesterday about what the cost in human lives would be if health care reform failed this year. He calculated that 150,000 people would be able to afford live-saving care were health care reform enacted this year. He based this on numbers that showed that 22,000 people died in 2006 because they were unable to pay for needed medical treatment. That’s “pay for,” not “access.” This is a cost in human lives for inaction. And all I hear politicians argue about is how much it will cost versus how much it will save.

This matter was crystalized perfectly for me at an event I attended at the end of last week wholly unrelated to health care reform. It was an event on a concept called “work-sharing” whereby a company outlines a plan to temporarily reduce work hours for its workforce, who are then eligible to receive partial unemployment benefits to make up for the shortfall in their wages. One panel was comprised of 2 state bureaucrats who worked in states that have successfully implemented work-sharing plans (New York and Washington) and a representative from the German embassy (Germany having a very successful work-sharing program).

During the Question and Answer session, one audience member asked a question about the paperwork burden employers and government agencies faced in Germany due to the large number of people participating in the program and how they managed that. The representative from the German embassy looked at him with some mix of incredulity and disgust and responded “We’re talking about jobs and people here, not paperwork.” And that was it. The concept of paperwork being a barrier to implementing a program that has been proven to reduce the number of layoffs and keep more people employed more consistently was one that was completely foreign to him.

All I could think during this exchange was “How uniquely American of us that these are the questions we are asking.” And I think it’s a true failing of our political system that we do not focus more on the effects of our policies on our people.

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