Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Edge Cases: The Right's Strategy

If you don't think about it too hard, it seems reasonable to believe every single vote can be secure, or that every student can be proficient in every subject.

But changing requirements and systems to address edge cases -- whether in engineering, software, or public policy -- has unintended consequences. Software changes that address the lowest common denominator can make a product harder for most people to use. And all of the legal warnings that junk up every object in American life result from edge cases, too.

Some other examples:
  • Keeping low-risk people in prison and penalizing any politician who makes a good-faith pardon or lets someone out on parole who later reoffends.
  • Zero tolerance for weapons and drugs in schools, resulting in suspensions for absurdities like toy weapons.
  • Climate change doubters, who are few and far between among scientists, vs. the 99 percent who have reached consensus. But we hear about them as if they were equal in number to the vast majority.
  • Child birth, where trying to make it safe 100% of the time makes it less safe because over-monitoring causes stress, impedes labor, and results in a higher C-section rate.
  • Children who aren't allowed to take responsibility for themselves as they grow older because of abduction fears.
Unintended consequences occur from edge case-based policy changes, but in some of cases, the consequences are clearly intended.

The pattern is clear: Conservatives love to base policy on edge cases. Like requiring photo IDs to prevent the infinitesimal number of times one voter impersonated another. Or shutting down a school because a small percentage of students in one demographic category is failing a standardized test.

The "welfare queen" is a classic example of an edge case, as is the rabid pursuit of a small amount of fraud in the food stamp program.

Nonstop talking about edge cases as if they are predominant undermines public confidence in our institutions. And that's exactly the Right's intention.

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