Trade-Off Politics

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Real life is a series of trade-offs: How will I allocate my paycheck? How do I spend my Saturday? Americans make these choices every day because we have finite time and the majority of Americans have limited resources.

Yet, in American politics, the public and our political leaders too often pretend as though public policy operates on different principles than our personal lives, as if there is some utopia that can be reached without sacrifice; the proverbial have your cake and eat it too.

Healthcare and climate change are the latest examples of the inability or the refusal of a significant portion of the American realpolitik to recognize real world trade-offs.

In climate change, predicting the future has proven difficult. Whether water levels rise or the earth becomes a few degrees warmer, what we know for certain is that the solutions called for by the Paris Accord and environmental activists require trade-offs that Americans are not prepared or willing to accommodate.

Reducing the American carbon footprint and decreasing our dependency on fossil fuels or coal requires real sacrifice. Think of the trade-offs: Driving an electric car reduces a consumer’s need for fossil fuels, but increases the consumer’s electricity use – supplied by burning coal. Alternatively, hydroelectricity and nuclear power are cost-effective alternatives, but many environmentalists find a dam’s impact on the local ecosystem to be alarmingly destructive. Additionally, Democrats have found themselves opposing nuclear power due to its waste products and its potential for meltdown under catastrophic circumstances. Energy choices come at the expense of something else.

Energy economics cannot change without impacting lifestyle choices and livelihoods of Americans.

Moving away from environmentally harmful energy sources will require real preparation. Entire towns in the center of our country are built on the energy they extract from the ground. Coal is not mined along the coasts. The livelihood of a significant region of the country will be affected by accords that limit our ability to burn coal. This is not to say that we shouldn’t reduce the coal we burn. Cities in China overly bent on coal for energy have seen the horrific ramifications of that (Harbin, Beijing, Changsha to name a few). But, working away from the coal industry will require finding alternatives for workers affected by this economic choice. The Bureau of Labor statistics counts over 50,000 coal jobs as of May 2017. The American Coal Council estimates that there are an additional 30,000 jobs to support the industry such as technicians and mechanics. In parts of the Midwest where we dig for coal, entire towns are centered on the coal mine adding thousands of other jobs from the town doctor to McDonald’s cook for these towns to operate. Any change in their industry can have large impacts on entire towns and regions of the country.

The crossroads of dutiful environmental conservation and the growth of human opportunity make political decisions difficult. Human activity uses and expends earth’s resources. Yet, trade-offs in economic choices are realities and while international agreements have certain benefits, hamstringing entire industries without steps for them to wean off of coal is moral posturing without practical leadership.

We have also seen this flawed logic in the healthcare debate. Over and over again, we hear that healthcare is a right, access to medicine is something unalienable by our birth as Americans. Any serious observation of medicine or medical resources debunks this notion. As Kevin D. Williamson skillfully noted in his analysis in the National Review last month, there is no cure for scarcity. There are not infinite resources for limitless medicine, not limitless cash to heal all wounds indefinitely. When we debate about healthcare, nothing comes without trade-offs.

If everyone is covered for anything all the time, scarcity of resources and doctors will happen and Americans will suffer for it. At the macro-level, our system would either require doctors to prioritize their patients by need or more likely, Americans would endure long lines for medical care.

If we limit what is covered or to what extent it’s covered, expect to be denied if those out of coverage situations occur. Without recognizing trade-offs, there is no argument to justify that a skin cancer treatment has priority access to a doctor’s time over a covered cosmetic treatment.

In a free society that makes no trade-offs in creating universal access to all medicine all the time, prepare to receive lesser benefit of the healthcare system than someone who, in their exercise of liberty makes decisions that cut against lifestyle prudence required by all Americans when sharing medical resources. This is to say that the chain smoker or morbidly obese will have just as equal and more frequent access to medical care than the healthy life-styled when they fall ill. A system like that is unsustainable so either there would have to be less liberty to cut down on bad actors creating more of a burden on the healthcare system, or the system would have to limit access in some way to some Americans thereby recognizing trade-offs. The debate is more complex than simply demanding “universal healthcare”. There are questions of liberty, access, and depth of coverage, all of which are impossible to debate without the realization that healthcare and our earth don’t come with a credit card with an endless credit limit.

We know this to be true in our private lives; we know that people make and live out their priorities. Those priorities come at the expense of other activities. It’s time the public debate mirrored this understanding that overarching changes in healthcare or the environment come to the detriment of some lifestyle choice or economic activity. If we are to make real improvement to alter any human effect on the environment or make Americans healthier, we need to recognize the real world of trade-offs. Americans can be “woke” to a world of injustice and pollution, but that awareness is of a petulant child rather than a serious observer if it does not come hand in hand with a willingness to sacrifice to achieve positive change for our country.