Clear goals, not just values, shape best policies

When I issue an edict to the young people who live with me, they frequently demonstrate their potential as future skeptics. Instead of docilely accepting the order, they instead pepper me with challenges. “Why?” they ask. My answer, regardless of its lock-tight logic, usually fails to impress them, and I am treated to a litany of reasons why the policy makes no sense, is no fair, or worst of all, is not fun. Too bad for them, though, because my role as provider means that my ideology rules the day – every day.

Despite the fallback iron-fist, I do try to make these parenting decisions in the context of broad goals that are informed by an overarching philosophy: produce caring, responsible and free-thinking human beings who have the physical, emotional and intellectual resources to function in the world. No big deal. Running orders – I’ll call them policy here; it sounds nicer – through such a rubric is a goal, but there are many times when emotions get the better of me and a policy develops out of context, separate from the larger goals and far from the philosophy I hope to instill in my kids. Those are the moments that we euphemistically refer to as “because I said so” times, but my rhetoric is a little more raw and not for a family newspaper.

That is all fine and good in the kinfolk setting, but out in the big decision-making world, it is a little harder to chuckle self-deprecatingly at ill-conceived or knee-jerk policy proposals, let alone decisions. Yet examples abound. A few, for discussion purposes: Not to pick on La Plata County, but OK, just for a minute. The demise of the comprehensive planning process was certainly the result of policy goals being lost in an emotional and ideological meltdown. It is understandable, given the volume and vitriol of those opposing the plan, for lawmakers to have capitulated and thrown out the plan – after all, who among us hasn’t cowed to a tantrum at some point? It is less than ideal, though from a policymaking standpoint. Lawmakers are, ostensibly, capable of keeping the end in sight and moderating bratty input to reach a result that most people can accept, if not love.

The extent to which those results are tied to a bigger vision for a community provides a useful metric for justifying or dismissing them in the process.

The city of Durango’s relationship with disposable bags is another example of where these two key parts of the policy process fail to align. While it is true – and admirable – that the city has committed itself to being a sustainable community wherein environmental stewardship is a value, the means by which this vision is achieved must make sense and be measurable.

Symbolic efforts – particularly those that have a real impact on people’s lives that is disproportionate to the effect they will have on the issue at hand – do not make good policy. While plastic bags are obnoxious and overused, we’re not choking sea birds around here.

Even those of us who would prefer a bag-free planet are not unjustifiably playing the part of know-it-all teenagers who have outwitted their parents.

The logic does not hold up, and instead represents a somewhat blind adherence to an ideology – albeit one I support – that is eclipsing sound policy development.

Then there is the matter of recreational marijuana. This is a particularly complex issue in that it did not unfold from a long-fought series of discussions about shared values and common goals. Instead, it was approved by voters in a relatively short-term effort to change the culture around marijuana use in Colorado.

The social, developmental, legal and fiscal issues are enough to keep regulators lawyers, health-care providers, educators, parents and cops busy for years, but in the meantime, someone’s got to make the laws, and they must reflect about as broad a spectrum of political positions that exists.

Given the voters’ mandate that the Legislature enact regulations to manage recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, there are clear marching orders. But the philosophy informing those regulations, the taxes that will support them, and the ramifications of allowing marijuana use for all those 21 and older who choose it is far from clear.

This is one of those times in the policy arena where all involved must shrug their shoulders and give up something to reach a larger goal that emerged from lawmaking’s left field. There is no perfect answer. “Because I said so,” is about all we’ve got; it may well be good enough here.

Being an armchair policymaker runs the risk of making a person mouthy. It has the same effect on growing children, who as adolescents, morph into world-wise knowers-of-all, happy to point out the flaws in parents’ decrees. Trouble is, sometimes, they are right. Better to engage them in the process, I suppose, than send them to their rooms.

And outcomes aside, our lawmakers, near and far, are excellent at the former, messy as it can be.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at

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