Public policy is not simple math. It is more of a tug-of-war game, sometimes in a 3-D space with opponents in every direction. In theory, if we do it right, we will all end up somewhere in the middle of the debate, which ultimately leads to the best overall outcome for the public. When engaged in a pitched battle over a particular issue, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but mostly you just settle somewhere in between with the promise of fighting another day.
One year I found myself utterly defeated after spending an entire Father’s Day at work trying to turn one more vote on a budget trailer bill. In my mind I was fighting for a core principle, and in the best interest of the people of California, stopping the approval of billions of dollars in ultimately wasteful spending. When moneyed powers overcame my straightforward logic, and the bill passed off the Senate floor despite the objections of a number of informed members, I returned to my office disheartened and distraught.
I walked into my boss’s office with tears in my eyes and told her I didn’t think I could do this anymore. If this was how the Legislature worked then I couldn’t see how my personal values would allow me to participate. She smiled knowingly, nodding along to my self-pity. If I wanted to quit, she completely understood, this job isn’t for everyone, she said. But if I leave, I’ll become one of those people out there who complains about the system but never does anything about it. Instead, she suggested, I could stay and continue to try to make a difference within the broken system. There will be losses, but there will also be wins, and all we can really hope for is to come out ahead in the end. What better life to live, than to be engaged in the fight, and give what you can of yourself in pursuit of the greater good?
I didn’t quit that night. I went on to work for years in the Legislature, and continue the good fight to this day. The point is that public policy takes good people willing to engage on the issues, fighting for what they believe is right but also willing to understand what other people believe, and even willing to lose sometimes. If policy debates were mathematical equations, we’d just let computers determine our policies. But that can’t ever happen, because in the end, our policies reflect our priorities and values, and those aren’t numerical calculations, they are shifting sands in the winds of time.