Saying we live in angry and polarized times is kind of like saying the Jets suck at football. The most recent examples are the reactions to Bruce Springsteen getting a DUI and Phoebe Bridger smashing a guitar on Saturday Night Live. Drinking and driving is never a good thing. Full stop. But once upon a time, intoxicated rock stars were more common than sober ones. I still remember a Van Halen video celebrating that David Lee Roth was so wasted his bodyguards had to carry him to the stage. Similarly, guitar smashing by rock stars was so common in the 80s and 90s that John Hiatt felt the need to write a song about it (Perfectly Good Guitar). Something that seems lost given the angry reaction to Bridger’s guitar smashing attempt last week.
The intensity of the reaction to these instances of rock star antics is emblematic of our times. Hiatt was anti guitar smashing, but more so because it seemed like a waste of money to a rock star of lesser fame and fortune. He was making a fiscal responsibility argument. Granted the reaction to Springsteen’s DUI was likely intensified because we learned about it right after he did a car commercial during the Super Bowl. But still, arguments about wasted rock stars (to the extent they ever existed) used to be about them setting a poor example for our wasted youth. The attacks of Springsteen mushroomed into attacks on him as a liberal in a moderate clothing. The attacks of Bridgers went directly to her being a spoiled member of the liberal elite. The posts and tweets came fast and furious.
Bruce really isn’t a moderate and he doesn’t care about you in the middle class. See he gets drunk and the media covers it up, like they do for all liberals.
Who is this pampered little girl trying to smash a guitar?
In both cases, the response was designed to divide and separate. These rock stars aren’t like you and me. They are different from us regular folk. Well no, shit. Rock stars aren’t like us, they are freaking rock stars. I think most people get this basic fact and can look at the DUI and Guitar Smashing in a more nuanced way.
We are constantly divided into camps. And this push to all or nothing, yes or no, makes us miss so many opportunities to find nuanced solutions that work. Here are just a few examples.
Opening Schools: If you listened to the rhetoric from the NJEA, if you want to open the schools you are a merchant of death bent on killing old Mrs. Thompson, the beloved 9th grade math teacher. If you listen to some parents, if the schools don’t open immediately it won’t really matter because all of Mrs. Thompson’s kids will be zombies from too much screen time. I think that there is strong evidence that schools can and should be opened as long as some precautions are in place. Things like vaccinating all teachers, allowing for the use of and hiring of support staff to lower pods size, installation of safety shields, cancellation of contact sports and events, installation of and training in additional technological supports are all things we should be doing to get kids back in schools. But since we are stuck in the all or nothing box, implementing those precautions becomes more expensive and time consuming than it should be. That means we keep changing the decision, which is the worst of all solutions. Once again, we miss opportunities to move forward because of all or nothing thinking.
Marijuana Legalization and Implementation: This one is a little different. The voters were asked to make an all or nothing choice. They did. Voters went all in for legalization of adult use cannabis. But the all or nothing mentality is preventing the legislature from implementing the will of the voters. Adding “magic mushrooms” or spelling out in the minutest of details what to do with old convictions or new ones for juveniles are both examples of trying to get all you can out of the change in cannabis law and accept nothing less.
Prevailing wages for PILOT projects: The idea of paying prevailing wages is generally a good idea, we ought to support higher wages for construction workers. However, some upcoming Assembly Bills (A-1571&1576) argue that prevailing wages should apply to all building projects where municipalities will use space (town halls, schools, police stations) and all projects where the municipality offers a developer a PILOT or other alternative tax arrangement. This might work for big projects in big cities. But smaller projects in smaller towns simply can’t afford it. The math might make sense for a 500-unit apartment building, but it doesn’t make sense for a 50-unit apartment building. This is an easy one to fix. Instead of all or nothing there should be a floor on project size for the prevailing wage limits to kick in. Exempting projects below this floor (say $50 million) isn’t all some trade unions want but it is better than the nothing they will get from small town developers if these bills move forward.
These are just a small set of current issues where the push to all or nothing thinking prevents us from finding working solutions. There is nothing wrong with debating and arguing but for it to mean anything it has to lead to something. I truly believe that most people are smart enough to know that,
- rock stars can have a good message (even if they are imperfect messengers);
- marijuana will be legal (but it can’t immediately erase the damage its illegality once caused)
- schools can open (if we are willing follow the science and understand risk)
- we can pay prevailing wage (on some but not all projects)
All or nothing policy choices sound great or awful depending on your point of view. But they rarely make the world a better place.