There are important questions that must be asked in public debates. How people answer them matters to elected officials. Too often, however, politicians and reporters ask the wrong questions. Here are some common ones that pop up regularly, with examples of better questions that we ought to be asking.
How much do we need to spend to get the roads in good condition?
The better question is, “How much is needed to fix roads faster than they fall apart?”
Road maintenance is a dynamic system; roads are constantly deteriorating, at varying rates, and we’re constantly repairing them, at varying rates. The goal shouldn’t be to get roads to some arbitrary level of average quality over a short period of time. Lawmakers should instead shoot for getting to the level where they keep up with deterioration. Then they can ensure that the state is headed in the right direction, steadily fixing roads faster than they fall apart. Elected officials are already close to this point.
Are government-owned utilities better than privately-owned utilities?
The better question is, “What can we do to ensure affordable and reliable electricity?”
Public and private utilities operate under the same regulatory process. If the process is not delivering affordable and reliable electricity, that is a failure of the process. There are alternative frameworks if the current system isn’t working, like returning to a competitive market for electricity. That might be a better answer to the question of how people can get affordable, reliable electricity if regulation fails to provide it.
How much more money do schools need to be adequately funded?
The better question is, “What can we do to get better education outcomes?”
While schools clearly need funding to operate, the levels of funding don’t seem to play much of a role in determining school success. Schools do not necessarily do better for their students when they get more money. The things that matter most relate to teacher quality and student access to great teachers.
Policymakers shouldn’t need to force districts to adopt effective practices. Schools are run by elected school boards that are responsible for managing the district’s affairs. State lawmakers should focus on creating a policy environment that encourages schools to do better. That’s the theory behind school choice. Give people options, and they’ll select the ones that work best for themselves. If local school boards don’t offer good options, then parents can find alternatives.
Without this competition for students (and the funding that comes with them), there is little financial incentive for schools to improve. The education system increases funding by lobbying the Legislature rather than by producing good results. Which is why the wrong question gets raised.
Should taxpayers hand out money to land the next big business project?
The better question is, “What can lawmakers do to make the state a better place to do business?”
The packages of cash and favors offered to companies to locate a business or office in the state are ostensibly intended to develop the economy. Lawmakers should discuss what they need to do to make their policies and services more conducive to economic growth, rather than how large a check to write to the next big project.
It’s understandable why people get the impression that these one-off projects are really important. Landing a facility comes with a lot of hype. Politicians throw around terms like “transformational” and “generational investment” to describe these projects. But these promises never deliver. Ever. There’s not one state that can point to a corporate welfare deal as the reason it went from economic backwater to thriving commonwealth. And the biggest deals tend to flop the hardest.
The goal should be to make Michigan a more attractive place to start and run a business. People on the right tend to think that low taxes and light regulatory burden are the way to go. People on the left tend to think that high-quality government services and a more equitable distribution of wealth will deliver. No one thinks that simply offering more favors to big companies than the next state is a good long-term strategy. Policymakers keep having the wrong conversation.
Lawmakers can focus on the better questions. Asking those questions can bring them to better policy conclusions.
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