The Politics of Policies

Huang Fellow Pallavi Avasarala Reflects on a Seminar with Buz Waitzkin

With the start of Democratic primary debates, I have increasingly found myself in discussions of politics and policies. How should healthcare be administered? How do we address climate change? Should the state or federal government decide on the legalization of marijuana? These were just some of the questions to which I was looking for answers in the first debate. Yet, I was disappointed to find the candidates simply stating their stances on these issues without explaining how they plan to accomplish these goals–I mean, how hard is it to explain “How?” if you are running for president?

With this frustration still in the back of my mind, I was excited for Dr. Waitzin’s talk on science policy, hoping to find the answers to “How?” However, listening to Dr. Waitzkin, I quickly realized how complicated enacting science policy is. With an overarching theme of federalism, Dr. Waitzkin explained how Republicans and Democrats use the concept of “states’ rights” as atactic to get what they want and manipulate funds, regulations, criminal laws, and opt-in/out policies to incentivize/de-incentivize actions that support their goals.

The perfect example of how these tactics are used in enacting policy is when the Death with Dignity Act (DWDA) was passed in the state of Oregon in 1997, permitting assisted suicides. Democrats, who controlled two of the three branches of government in the state, supported the legislation while the Republicans, who controlled the congress, did not. Republicans, who traditionally support states’ rights, argued that the Federal government had the power to prosecute physicians who obeyed the DWDA under the Controlled Substances Act, which classified drugs and set restrictions on how each class of drugs should be used. Meanwhile, Democrats, who traditionally support federal power, used states’ rights as a tactic and argued that health policy is a state issue and therefore, the federal government has no authority to prosecute Oregon physicians. TheDemocrats also incentivized the law by removing the regulations that cause physicians to lose their license, the criminal charges, and the liability laws involved when physicians practice assisted suicide. These changes save the state a significant amount of money by decreasing court charges, serving as another incentive.

Learning about these tactics astonished me as I realized how much the government can manipulate actions, especially through money. For example, by changing taxes, enacting fines, or giving subsidies, the government can drive us to buy certain healthcare. We are simply the pawns of those who control the money and policies. However, there is a positive side to the use of money as a tool to manipulate actions. For example, even though Kansas is a red state, more than 30% of its energy is produced by wind turbines, thus reducing power prices, generating money for farmers, and creating jobs. In this case, while Kansas does not wholeheartedly support
the green initiative, it still produces much of its energy through renewable sources for local economic benefits.

The realization of the extent to which that money and policies drive us toward certain actions bothered me a little. I always thought I was smart by choosing the simplest and economically beneficial option–for example, the bronze plan of Obamacare–but in actuality, the policy was designed that way by politicians with the intent that I would pick it. The anti-government/administration voice inside my head became troubled. This brought me back to the Democratic Debate. As I watched the second debate, connecting everything I learned in Dr. Waitzkin’s talk to what each of the politicians were saying, I realized that while our actions are influenced by politicians, we also influence them in many ways, completing the cycle.

For example, going back to the DWDA, Republicans opposed it in fear of losing their conservative base. The same goes for Democrats, who invoked states’ rights to protect the access of assisted suicide and please their base. The issue is further complicated by the fact that Oregon was a purple state at the time, and that corporations and their money play a significant factor in candidate’s electability. In order to satisfy as many voters as possible, while not alienating drug companies who benefit from assisted suicide by the sale of drugs, Democrats needed to make assisted suicide possible, but extremely regulated and difficult to access. This explains why the act required two separate doctors to declare that the patient will die in 6 months, a psychiatric evaluation of the patient, and the patient to take the drug by themselves. This shows how susceptible politicians are to society, since they not only have to please their supporters, but also their adversaries and corporations.

Dr. Waitzkin’s talk made me realize that policymaking is complex and requires compromises. With politicians influencing society and vise versa, it’s no wonder the Democratic candidates refrained from explaining how they would carry out their goals-they couldn’t afford to alienate the voters and corporations affected by their policies.

Pallavi Avasarala, Huang Fellow ’22

Pallavi AvasaralaPallavi is from Northern Virginia, planning to study Neuroscience and Sociology.