Cook On Concord: Truth or consequences in public policy

Sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table with bright young adults is an educational experience. Undergraduate and graduate students and recent college graduates discussing public policy and their perspectives on it, and then considering their questions, essentially led to the following question: “Are our leaders telling us the truth and acting on facts or fiction?”

A few examples:

• It is a relatively established fact that the “weapons of mass destruction” argument that largely led to the vote to invade Iraq was not based on facts. The argument of whether everyone believed they existed or not has become a quagmire. The young people with whom I spoke wanted to know why we are in a war that was based on incorrect information and the suspicious among them thought that the weapons of mass destruction argument was a pretext for removing Saddam Hussein from power.

They are frustrated and seem to miss the argument that now that we are there, there are tremendous ramifications involved in getting out. Nevertheless, that they are concerned that the most powerful nation in the world took unilateral, or almost unilateral, action based on incorrect facts is telling and — perhaps more importantly — colors their view of everything else the government tells them.

• The discussion of President Bush’s recent foray into the revision of immigration law appears to be how to allow “illegal aliens” to stay in the country, especially those who have jobs, have integrated themselves into society and are making a life here.

President Bush has made the argument that he is not trying to grant amnesty to those who entered illegally, is not trying to put them on the “road to citizenship,” but that he wants to somehow legitimize their presence. Logic gets gummed up in these arguments. If the aliens are “illegal,” then they should not be here. If the law is wrong, they should be granted amnesty, or the law should be changed. If they should not be granted amnesty, they should leave. If they are granted amnesty and are here legally, equal treatment would seem to argue that they should be able to get on the road to citizenship.

Young people are confused, as are their elders, by these arguments. The basic fact is that as long as the United States is the beacon of hope in the world, people will try to get here by whatever means, as they have throughout our history, and we better have a coherent and explainable policy in dealing with them or refusing them entry. All the fancy footwork currently going on seems to confuse the situation and seems not on facts or logic. However, ignoring the law is not a good basis for policy.

• On a far lesser scale, there is a lot of argument about whether merchants, governments or individuals during the Christmas season should use the word “Christmas.”

Apparently, this year many retailers started referring to “holiday trees” and “holiday season sales,” and this raised the ire of the conservative Christian community, which demanded that Christmas be put back into the terminology.

All over America, “holiday trees” have been restored to “Christmas trees” and retailers are returning “Christmas” to their marketing materials. The fact is that we would not be having celebrations, marketing hysteria and gross commercialization if the 25th of December were not Christmas, a Christian holiday.

The incongruous part of the situation is that the same conservative Christians who demand retailers put the word back in the season have for years decried the commercialization of the holiday and the taking of religious meaning out of it. This is confusing to young and old alike.

• Finally, a number of young people commented on the number of ethical lapses currently in the news and it led to a number of observations. First, how politicians can be dumb enough to think they are going to get away with this blatant nonsense is curious. Next, a number of the young people said this “proved” that the government was corrupt, which is unfair to the vast majority of honest politicians. Finally, they wondered if all the talk about “ethics commissions,” ethics laws and harsher penalties was doing any good. Where the facts are in all of this is hard to tell.

• A number of young people also mentioned that a government that can wage war on faulty facts and seems to ignore science in making its environmental and educational decisions seems to be tied to ideology more than it is tied to reality. They made the connection and tied it to intent.

Whether all these concerns of young people are valid or not, it is sobering to note that they are thinking about these matters in these terms and do not seem to believe what they are hearing from their elders and their government. That ought to be the ultimate warning for their elders.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

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