I believe in silver bullets. That is, I believe that some of our most complex public policy problems can be solved overnight.
I’ve had both the pleasure and pain of working on some of our nation’s most nagging problems – urban violence, homelessness, incarceration. Billions of dollars have been spent on each without much success.
Urban violence: What if urban violence was committed by a very small number of individuals controlled by a street code which requires violence? What if that dynamic could be changed by engaging the less than 1 percent of any urban city’s population that is responsible for upwards of 80 percent of that violence? What if this was the only thing that could create a firebreak, make space for social programs to work, and allow parents to put their children to bed in beds not bathtubs? Would we do it? Yes. Does it work? Yes. So, why aren’t we doing it everywhere?
Homelessness: Homelessness follows the same pattern as urban violence. What if 95 percent of our homelessness resources – spent in police, ambulances, medical bills, shelter housing, mental health treatment, jail and so on were being spent on just 10 percent of the homeless population? What if we did whatever it took for this small group of unattractive, difficult homeless – including giving them an apartment, treatment, and a nurse – to essentially solve the chronic homelessness problem and be able to focus on the more attractive families who find themselves temporarily homeless? Would we do it? I would. Does it work? Yes. So, why aren’t we doing it everywhere?
Incarceration: The number of people in prison has exploded in the past three decades and while in the past this problem might have been similar to the problems above –that is that there are a relatively small group of chronic offenders who clog our courts and jails – today, that problem has gotten much worse. According to the most recent Justice Department Statistics, nearly two-thirds of the 3.8 million increase in the number of adults ever incarcerated in prison between 1974 and 2001 occurred as a result of an increase in
the rates of first incarceration – not our chronic offenders. I believe there is a silver bullet here too – we just have to find it.
I believe in people everywhere who have a particular knack for identifying silver bullets – Malcolm Gladwell the most famous among them but also David Kennedy who for me has solved the urban violence problem.
I have also been graced by a silver bullet a little closer to home – in the life of my son. Luke has a fibular hemimelia – essentially one of his legs is “programmed” to be shorter than the other. While not noticeable at birth, the difference became apparent before he turned one. You have seen people with this condition – they hobble, or they balance themselves on a high shoe lifts, or their short leg is replaced with a prosthetic. Not even a decade ago, this would have been the prognosis for Luke; but a doctor in Russia had an idea that changed all of this. What if he could lengthen the leg – literally break it, slowly pull it apart, and let it grow back together again. Last summer, we lengthened Luke’s leg 6.6 centimeters and will do it again if we need to. This is not a miracle. It’s a silver bullet.
I believe it is unnatural for humans to think that there are such simple solutions to difficult problems. Therefore, I believe we must force ourselves to look for them and embrace them when they are right there staring us in the face.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.