Some policy reforms would solve or mitigate enormous public problems, but they get little attention. Why is that? It’s because there is no pain point.
A pain point isn’t the underlying cause of a problem or even the problem itself. It’s the pain that makes you finally want to do something about the problem.
Trillion-dollar annual federal deficits? No problem, because the Fed keeps printing money and no one has to pay it back (yet), so, no pain (yet). Without a pain point, reforms like a constitutionally mandated balanced budget get little notice.
But $1.5 trillion in cumulative student debt is a different story. Many people — over 40 million — have to pay back these loans, with the average debt approaching $40,000. Those who struggle to repay are experiencing a pain point, which is why presidential candidates are talking about student debt every day.
When it comes to policy, we can think of pain points as the way people experience the effects of poor policies. And the larger the group, the more politicians notice. Think not just student loans, but gas tax hikes, expensive and maddeningly complex health insurance, Michigan’s ridiculously costly no-fault auto insurance, endless traffic congestion, fear of (or unreliable) police in many areas, and hard-to-find quality child care.
For the Mackinac Center, we must pay attention to pain points, and we need different strategies to advance reforms when pain points are weak versus when they are strong. Few things, for example, light up our website like our research on gas tax increases (especially Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed 45-cent rise). But we have to be more creative to draw attention to our equally good research on corporate welfare, since most people don’t feel the direct pain of handing over taxpayers’ money to businesses.
Understanding pain points is essential for connecting our ideas to real people who, unlike us, don’t spend every day thinking about public policy. When George H. W. Bush ran for president, he came under attack for not knowing the price of a gallon of milk, something most voters are familiar with. Media reports then used his alleged ignorance to make him seem out of touch with the problems of regular people. It was politically effective, even if it might have been perfectly logical for him to use his brain space for other facts.
Nobel laureate Milton Friedman wrote, “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change.” Facts are paramount in knowing what policies we need, but pain points are important for knowing when policy ideas have ripened and are ready to be embraced by wider audiences and advanced through the political process. At our best, we can identify pain points that signal an appetite for our ideas before a policy pain becomes a policy crisis.