In responding to one of my recent columns, a reader said I must be a “fan” of TIFs (tax increment financing deals).

In responding to a different column, another reader said I was an “elitist” because I supported the tax reform recently overturned by a “people’s veto.”

I find these responses interesting and unfortunate, not as examples of their positions on the issues involved but as examples of the growing tendency to personalize positions I — or anyone — may take on public policy decisions.

To say that I am a “fan” of TIFs is like saying I am a “fan” of the fastball. For a certain pitcher against a certain batter in a certain situation, a fastball will probably work better than a changeup or a curve. But to say that calling for a fastball in that situation makes one a “fan” of the fastball is to miss the point of the analysis.

I’m a fan of getting the out. What I use to get it is irrelevant. In fact, if I come to rely on the fastball too often, I reduce its effectiveness and thus impede rather than advance my ultimate cause — winning the game.

Similarly, I’m a “fan” of raising the funds needed to provide approved public services in as stable, efficient, equitable and job-enhancing a fashion as possible.

To say that those who supported the recently defeated tax reform proposal were “elitist” and those who opposed it were whatever the opposite of “elitist” may be — perhaps “populist” — may or may not be true depending on how one defines those terms.

But so what? What has elitism or populism to do with stability, efficiency, equity or job creation? Is a high heater “populist” and a sneaky curve “elitist?” In that world, where would Greg Maddux fall? Someone who was just sneaky fast.

Attributing motive and quasi-moral positions to those who take particular sides in public policy debates may stoke the fires of righteous indignation and bolster the egos of those already convinced of the correctness or desirability of one side or the other. But they do little to shed more light on the issue and are unlikely to produce more effective public policy decisions.

The important public issues we face, both in Maine and in the nation as a whole — restoring consumer and business confidence in the stability of our economic institutions and policies, improving our health care and education systems, finding ways to accommodate people from around the world eager to share in and help build our collective prosperity, protecting our environment — these are all matters about which we disagree.

We disagree about the relative importance of these problems and about the best ways to solve them. But if disagreement translates into lack of respect and then into contempt, what hope do we have of finding solutions?

I’m no “fan” of the split-the-difference, please-no-one, let’s-pretend solutions that are too often the outcome of so-called bipartisanism.

I am, however, a big “fan” of searching and fearless examination of the evidence, regardless of whose sacred cows may be gored. The only way to solve the problems we find ourselves facing is to stop trying to blame others.

The first thing the transportation experts do following a car or plane or train wreck is reconstruct the accident, i.e., they try to explain what happened.

The first thing the managers and coaches do after a game — win or lose — is look at the tapes to see what worked and what didn’t.

Sometimes a player’s motivation may be in question, but more often it’s his/her decisions and execution that proved to be the difference between success and failure.

The same logic applies to economic policy decisions, and we are better served by analyzing the decisions and execution of the policy makers than by presuming their motivations.


Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at: [email protected]