It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.
The climate must be perfect all the year.
– King Arthur in the musical “Camelot”
Growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, the background music to my life came from Broadway musicals. The only break from my mother’s iron-fisted pragmatism came after the supper dishes had been washed and put away and school homework begun. Then the LP records would come out and the sounds of “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma” and “My Fair Lady” would waft through the house. But her all-time favorite – in those days when we weren’t the Kennedys but followed their every move – was “Camelot” and Richard Burton’s lilting Welsh recitation of “The winter is forbidden till December, and exits March the second on the dot.”
I’m reminded of such innocent, romantic tomfoolery every time another example of attempting to legislate desired outcomes arises. I call them Camelot policies. Who wouldn’t want the rain to wait till after sundown and the morning fog to disappear by 8? Who wouldn’t want all wages to cover the costs of living? Who wouldn’t want the solutions to all health problems to be readily accessible and covered by a Gecko-simple insurance policy? Who wouldn’t want a golden age of shuffleboard and stable prices stretching forward for all those who pass a chronological threshold of 65 years … or maybe 66 or 67 … but never so much as 70?
No one, of course.
So why not put these dreams into law? Let’s raise the minimum wage because it doesn’t provide enough income to support a family. Let’s exempt food and hair cuts from the sales tax because they’re necessities of life. Let’s require everyone to buy health insurance, being sure it covers all the required diseases. Wouldn’t we all feel better knowing that we stood solidly in favor of such unquestionably desirable goals by making them THE LAW?
Probably we would. And that’s exactly why enacting such innocent and futile gestures as formal policy is so misguided – it beguiles us into thinking we’ve solved a problem when all we’ve done is sweep it under a rug, pushed it out of sight and therefore out of mind. By acting as if life is about outcomes rather than process, we miss all the pain, all the joy and, most importantly, all the learning, of the journey.
We think that what our economy needs is “jobs,” created by some mysterious entity called “a business” that dutifully provides them (at the proper pay level) to those who somehow got and followed the instruction manual for assembling “qualifications.” What our economy really needs is people with experience and skills and the expectation that if they take those qualities into the world with confidence and enthusiasm, the world will provide them the means to live.
Raising the minimum wage, exempting food from the sales tax, requiring the purchase of health insurance and the host of other “Camelot policies” won’t do a thing to meet that need. Indeed, by raising the barriers to working experience and increasing the move to labor replacing technology (Welcome to our restaurant, please tap your order into the keypad.), they impede that goal. By making our tax base narrower and more volatile, they increase the pressure in Augusta to reduce funding for education reform – our best hope for building the quality of our labor force. By maintaining the fantasy that health care is the outcome of an Olympian struggle between Big Employers and Big Insurance Companies rather than of millions of small decisions made by millions of providers and patients in the privacy of individual conversations, we in fact raise still higher the single greatest barrier now standing in the path of improved health care.
In short, there’s simply not
A less congenial spot
For solving all our problems
Than remaining stuck in Camelot.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at: