Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Splitting the Difference

My wife and I were out at lunch yesterday eating our brisket tacos and eavesdropping on the conversation of four guys seated in the booth behind us. These were intelligent guys, dissecting Peyton Manning’s six interceptions and the scout team receivers he had Sunday, echoing the dangers of fast food they’d learned in “Supersize Me.” What struck me in terms of corrections sentencing, though, was a comment one of them made about how he determines what to believe out of public debate. He listens to the “left,” then he listens to the “right” (hopefully before they “shake it all about”), and goes with the middle ground, he told his colleagues proudly. The truth had to be close to that.

Now this means that he believes that the left and the right are about 50% right, I guess, and that, if one says “all” and the other says “none,” the answer must be “some.” Let’s leave aside arguments that aren’t structured like that (aka, most of them) or that he may combine the 50% each side gets wrong, and think about what this means for corrections sentencing. These guys are the people who have to be persuaded for or against any corr sent policy, willing to listen, yes, but unwilling to make the effort to actually determine if one or the other side might be, oh, 95% right and the other thus 5% right. When that’s the argument you split the difference on, you end up supporting a lot of nonsense, but feeling really good about yourself.

We’ve made it okay to be citizens who don’t bother to get good information before making a decision. We can nod our heads and look wise and say, “must be somewhere in between.” Yes, there are some policy areas about which the splitting the difference may make sense, but the bulk aren’t. Evidence-based research doesn’t support most of what we do in corrections sentencing policy in most states or on the fed level, but we think we sound smart to split the difference between sense and nonsense. We give the appearance of thinking, getting others to nod their heads, as the other guys at the table did, relieving ourselves of any effort to find out what reality is and of any responsibility when, surprise, the nonsense part of what we’ve agreed to comes back to bite us in the tush. Like the post below indicates, those of us with the real evidence tend to talk to people like us, tend to target only “influencers” in hopes to get things to change, when the real change only comes when guys like those at the booth next to my wife and me stop splitting the difference and realize one end of their continuum is just wrong. And knowing this gives the deniers and obstructionists of any policy the ability to throw any “authoritative” response to the evidence back out there to engender the “split the difference” reaction. And, if neither left nor right offers the middle ground on difficult issues, well, let’s go back to whatever the “default” position, the tried-and-true position with the policy is. Which for corrections sentencing is prison.

So I owed those guys at the next booth appreciation, and not just for steering me away from actually watching “Supersize Me.” Got good tacos and some insight at the same time, even if it left me thinking that we won’t get where we need to be in dealing with the future we face in corrections sentencing and other areas until we figure out a better way of getting these guys to see that “splitting the difference” might sound smart and even be smart occasionally, but as a general strategy for a good future, they might as well be eating only quarter pounders for the rest of their lives.

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