Tackling the unsexy (but game changing) policy issues
I attended a great event last night, put on by the good folks at ASSEMBLE and Chad of Urban Social Assembly. The troupe brought in Vishan Chakrabarthi of SHoP Architects in New York to speak about the views he articulated in his excellent book titled "A Country of Cities." In his talk, Vishan highlighted how national policies have shaped how urban and suburban landscapes have developed in America. The existence of the mortgage interest tax deduction and the construction of interstate highways, for example, made it cheaper and easier for suburbs to grow. I never shy from asking a smart person a question, so I probed the folks onstage (by this point, Craig Fahle was leading a panel discussion with Vishan and a few Detroiters) about whether cities with transit-oriented densities could develop without state or national policy change. Are there any levers cities can pull unilaterally?, I asked.
All the panelists gave interesting answers, including Vishan, but the visiting urbanist also challenged the premise of my question. Millennials, he contended, shouldn't always shy away from big systemic issues and shouldn't balk at the opportunity to shape far-reaching public policies. A lot of these system-wide policies, he argued, are worth tackling because they fundamentally change how the problem can be solved. Millennials shouldn't shy away from these big policy debates because they are hard, complex, and are unlikely to provide instant results.
A lot of policies are so deeply seeded in how we conduct business in the US, that they constrain the possible outcomes in the system. Take the mortgage interest deduction - a subsidy on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars a year - as an example. If we're putting intense downward pressure on prices for owning homes, of course suburbs will grow. There are many other unsexy issues like the mortgage interest deduction that have huge impacts on how things work in America. If we don't change some of these things, we may never move the needle on solving some of our country's most difficult social challenges - the ones that millennials claim to desperately want to solve.
As a generation, we millennials crave "positive change" which "leaves an impact" on the world and "makes it a better place." And that's great. But I think we're missing something important if we don't work on some of these foundational issues similar to mortgage interest deductions - like money in politics, emphasis on quarterly earnings and shareholder value maximization, gerrymandering, due process of law, infrastructure investment, budget reform, tax reform, and others.
Maybe the work of our generation should be to tackle unsexy, but game-changing, institutionally-driven, systemic policy changes so our children can do the explicitly impactful work we always dreamed of. Maybe some of us should trade social entrepreneurship for system design. If we did, maybe institutions like governments, markets, and courts would function better in the first place and make some of the gripping social problems we face today less overwhelming to address.