Upside Risks Vs. Downside Risks In Determining Policy Alternatives

By

Leonard Zwelling

Often, when formulating policy, when faced with two alternative paths, one must make a choice in which one alternative proves of greater risk than the other. Although taking great risk can be the mark of great leadership, those risks should never be simply for the sake of risk taking. It seems that some of the policies of the Republican Party are far more risky than one would have thought the GOP would embrace. The Republicans don’t frame the issues that way, but consider this.

Exhibit one is climate change.

Many Republicans deny it even exists. That so many of the warmest years on record have been in the last ten, and that ice fields are melting in the Arctic, and that Atlantic hurricanes are ravaging the eastern U.S. while drought and floods pummel middle America suggest to any thinking person that climate change is real. It is also reasonable to presume that at least part of this is man made and thus fixable with some environmental considerations regarding greenhouse gasses, automobile emissions, and the use of fossil fuels. The upside of putting into place stricter environmental rules is that the atmosphere is bound to be cleaner. The down side is, I suppose, some inhibition in industrial productivity (although I really don’t believe that). The safest bet here is to put the regulations into place. At best we can save the planet. At worst we make things better anyway. Stricter environmental policy is a no lose proposition except for those in the fossil fuel industry—especially coal. Republicans obviously feel that deregulation is worth it. Democrats disagree. The safe play is to go with the Dems on this, but alas, the president does not see it that way. Pity! Sad!

Now what are the upsides of loosening environmental regs? Oil companies make more money. The down side is that climate change goes unabated and the planet becomes uninhabitable in a few years. I have a grandchild. This seems like a no brainer to me.

The same is true with regard to guns. What’s the cost of outlawing assault style weapons and ceasing the sale of ammunition for these weapons of war as Walmart has just done? Nothing. What’s the upside? Perhaps fewer people will die in terrorist gun violence like that which we have seen this past month. The upside is getting rid of these weapons. There is no down side. Still the Republican Senate and Mitch McConnell will do nothing on the issue. What’s the upside of doing nothing? Some people get to play Rambo at the gun range. The down side is more unnecessary death.

Abortion is yet another such issue as Lisa Rosenbaum points out in the most recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. As states tighten their restrictions on abortion, it is inevitable that illegal and unsafe abortions will return to the morgue. This is unacceptable. While abortion is not something that we should encourage, Bill Clinton’s trope of legal, safe and rare is still a guiding principle.

These same risk-reward decisions are all around and Mr. Trump seems always to make the wrong one. He won’t back gun control legislation. He pulled out of the Paris Accords that fight global warming. He is pulling money from needed Department of Defense projects around the country and the world to build his ridiculous wall that he promised us Mexico would pay for. He cozies up to dictators and infuriates our NATO allies. He meddles in Israeli politics, something he knows almost nothing about and his son-in-law still hasn’t let the world in on his secret plan for peace in the Middle East.

Mr. Trump makes decisions poorly, off the cuff and with little thought or information. This is not the way we expect the president to lead.

I understand his attraction to so many. He’s a maverick. He’s not of Washington and he’s rich (supposedly) so beholding to no one. But really folks, he is prone to risky pronouncements and decisions. This is a dangerous world and there is a lot to be said for making policy decisions based on decreasing risk to the American people and to the planet. This is simply not something of which Mr. Trump is capable.

Leonard Zwelling