Monday, July 6, 2015

How to fix a problem

Colorado has successfully reduced teenage pregnancies by 40% in the last over the last 6 years. This is one issue very few people would disagree that teenage pregnancies are a problem (given the cost of young women having to raise a kids when they would otherwise be in school and other issues) but the solutions continues to be debated. The way Colorado did it was very simple, make it so people don't get pregnant by offering free IUDs. This is currently being debated in their legislature where the Republican majority is trying to end the program. The startling part of this is that we while teenage pregnancies are down, abortions are down too because they are not getting pregnant in the first place. New York Times

This has a massive lesson for all policies, and especially for activists, which the fairly simple notion that if there is a problem you are trying to correct you should aim at the root of the problem, just like in the garden where you need to pull the roots in order to get the plant. If you want to reduce abortions, you should make it so women don't get pregnant in the first place by providing IUDs. It is far cheaper for society to provide an IUD for a young woman than the increase in welfare payments that could occur if the woman gets pregnant. Here are a few more examples of this type of thinking:
  1. If you are concerned about income inequality, the Earned Income Tax Credit is successful at reducing poverty because it alleviates low incomes with more income. Effective tax credits make it so you have an incentive to earn an extra dollar.
  2. If you want to fix global warming, you need to reduce carbon emissions. If you want to reduce carbon emissions (or really reduce any bad), you want to tax it to make it more expensive.
  3. When trying to help third-world countries develop while aid can be effective the root cause of the poverty needs to be the goal of advocacy efforts. Working to fight corruption in governments, build high-quality nationwide systems, and build infrastructure which prevent their economies from developing alongside immediate aid will help move these countries to a point where poverty can finally end.
Any time an advocate comes to me with an issue telling me what they want to do, if I agree with their overall goals, I always ask the question of how they are going to go about fixing the issue. In order to make sure the remedy is actually going to solve the problem you need to understand how the problem came about in the first place, and you need to understand the processes behind the issue so that you can effectively remedy the problem. Not doing so frequently leads to remedies which are along the lines of "your forehead is hot because you have a fever, so in order to stop the fever we only need to cool your forehead and the fever will go away." While cooling the forehead is a first step it will not by itself end the fever and in order to supplement our natural response mechanisms you need a more direct remedy to fight the virus. The same principle applies in fixing social problems where in order to really fix the problem we need to understand it and attack it at the root, because if we don't fix the root of the problem we will be caught up in a very expensive never ending battle.

This is where solutions like what Colorado did to end teenage pregnancy is really effective because they fought the issue at the root which was far more effective than other methods, like abstinence-only sex education. In order to be effective advocates we need more policies like this.

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