For all the talk about data mining in our technology-addled world, we often neglect to mine the most important vein of all in our pursuit of good policies: The past. In his new book, What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America, columnist Cal Thomas pleads that we look to the programs, policies, and ideas that have worked in the past as we confront the problems of today.
At the start of his book, he quotes from Ecclesiastes 1:9-10, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
In his data-mining of the past, Thomas looks to past tax cuts which have leveraged huge economic growth. The spread of STD? He suggests we revisit the quaint idea of virginity. Those mired in poverty? He urges us to consult Horatio Alger on how to overcome obstacles.
Are our schools failing? School choice is working all over the country. Are states slipping behind? Try what Indiana, Louisiana, and New Jersey have done — cut taxes and spending.
It is Thomas’ contention that the solutions are out there, in other states and in our own past, but we fall for “innovation” instead.
In his back-to-the-future plea, Thomas rises above ideology, party, and rhetoric and adopts a single pragmatic criterion instead: Did it work when it was tried?
That’s the real contribution of Cal Thomas’ new book. It elevates pragmatism over dogma. When Felix Rohatyn was serving as ambassador to France, he said “the French value ideas over facts. Americans value facts over ideas.”
He meant that the French are forever concerned whether an idea comes from the right or the left. Their dozen or so political parties each occupy a carefully defined sliver of the electorate on the right to left spectrum. The source of the idea and its ideological forebears matters more than whether it works or not.
But Americans value what works regardless of its place in the ideological spectrum. Hence the genius of welfare reform in coupling more day care and job training from the left with mandatory work requirements and time limits from the right. If it works, do it.
For America’s most widely syndicated columnist to emerge from the right to embrace an agenda of pragmatism, based on actual outcomes, is refreshing.
Fortunately for Thomas, he does not have to wander far from the conservative agenda in his pursuit of what works. Usually, conservative solutions are the more time tested and realistic. But sometimes they are not, as when he urges alternative to incarceration for some crimes.
These variations from conservative, hard right dogma only serve to strengthen the credibility of the rest of the work.
“What Works”, works.
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