First in a series

SOMETIMES THINGS ARE simpler than they seem. But other times, maybe most of the time, things actually are complicated, with at least two sides to every story.

Unfortunately, as human beings we have a hard time processing complexity. Our natural inclination, given the limitations of our non-AI brains, is to simplify in order to understand — or at least to give us the illusion of understanding. 

Thankfully, this works most of the time, by giving us enough partial and practical insight to let us make decisions and take actions. In hindsight, Newton’s discovery of gravity was simplistic and not quite right. Nevertheless, it was close enough to enable the development of the modern world.

Of course, simplification can go too far, and in the current political moment a pragmatic simplicity has devolved into simple-mindedness, where disagreements are mortal threats and opponents are enemies of the state.

Over the next several months, I will be writing a series of issue briefs for CommonWealth Beacon on some big – and often controversial– social and political problems that most of us desperately want to be simple and which have too often been oversimplified by politicians, the media, and advocates, usually to align with some pre-existing narrative or belief, or sometimes self-interest. Should municipalities have the legal authority to limit rent increases or tax home sales? Should relaxed voting regulations adopted during COVID be scaled back? Should right-to-shelter laws be reconsidered in light of rising immigration? Should community college be free? 

The goal is not to confuse or paralyze, but to acknowledge and clarify the inescapable trade-offs in public policy (i.e., second-best and less-worse options) and to encourage humility, civility, and even empathy in our public discourse and decision-making.

My purpose is also not to argue for middle-of-the-road compromise as the only defensible outcome on every issue. Principles really do matter and sometimes there really is a right and wrong, and sometimes an amicable agreement is not possible. But even when it seems like there is no common ground at all, we need to have enough self-awareness of our own fallibility and respect for the honestly held beliefs of others, no matter how misguided we may think they are, to hold on loosely to our own positions so we can view the other side as temporary opponents, rather than permanent enemies.

At the same time, as a matter of long-term self-interest, we need to keep in mind that even if “our side” wins this round, the wheel will inevitably turn and the balance of forces will no longer be in our favor – even in places that for the moment are deep red or blue. Total victory today leads to hard feelings and long memories that can become total defeat tomorrow. As fellow citizens, this is an unsustainable pattern that can only end in calamity, not just for some, but for all.  Which is to say that most of the time sustainable progress is better than pyrrhic victory.

The series will begin by considering a set of common behaviors and advocacy strategies that undermine a healthy civic discourse by turning every debate about policy into a battle of good vs. evil (or smart vs. stupid), where the only rule of engagement is to mobilize your forces so that your team prevails or at least sticks together in their outrage or moral superiority. 

Having identified these challenges that get in the way of effective governance and general civility, I’ll recommend some preferable alternatives and attempt to walk the talk by applying these rules of the road to some concrete, but contentious policy proposals before the Commonwealth and the country as whole—not to take sides or offer solutions, but to provide some guidance for framing disagreements around areas of real difference in hopes that it might lead to a better politics and a more united (or at least, less divided) country.

This is not intended to be a purely technocratic exercise, since in some, if not most cases, irreconcilable differences come down to competing values and beliefs, rather than facts and figures The challenge is to channel these conflicting perspectives, which can sometimes feel like alternative universes, towards the most relevant and valid data points and arguments concerning specific areas of reasonable disagreement, to enable a more productive conversation about the nuts and bolts (or whats and hows) of policy, rather than the clash of civilizations.

By way of full disclosure, I do in fact have opinions and over the years I’ve taken public stands on a variety of issues, mostly regarding education policy, as executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank, and as a member of Massachusetts state government under the last five Republican governors. I will do my best to keep my own views to myself as much as possible, but I look forward to being called out and kept honest by Commonwealth Beacon’s thoughtful readers.

The most important thing to know is that I believe America and Massachusetts have a past and present of which we can be proud, warts and all, with the potential for an even better and brighter future. 

I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It’s this sense of clear-eyed gratitude and optimism, even in the face of long-standing challenges and injustices, that underlies this series and I hope will be shared by its readers.

Jim Peyser served most recently as Massachusetts secretary of education under Gov. Charlie Baker.