Friend of the blog Keith wrote in a comment recently:
“My theory is that any law should be no more than 2 or 3 pages long and should be written in such a way that a 6th grader could understand it. Then maybe the American people would pay more attention.”
That’s an appealing idea, and it got me to thinking. And as an engineer, I started drawing an analogy to technology as it’s what I know best.
If you buy a television, the features and operation are usually explained in a Quick Start Guide that is just a few pages long. That’s plenty of information for most people to make a purchase decision and to actually hook up and use the thing. I think that’s sort of what Keith was getting at. It would be cool if legislation had a Quick Start Guide that explained everything you needed to know to support or oppose a bill in just a few pages.
But the reality is, that like televisions, political problems often have a ridiculous level of complexity required to actually make the thing work. The ATSC standard (what the television has to do inside to actually receive broadcasts) is hundreds of pages long all by itself, and makes for lousy beach reading. But as a user, you don’t care about those details, only that the TV has an ATSC compliant tuner—a fact that fits nicely on the Quick Start Guide. It would be great if all the complexity of Congressional bills could be abstracted similarly.
And this does sort of happen. Legislation is usually digested into sound bites for public consumption. This is sort of like the Legal Quick Start Guide. The problem is, there is no one authoritative author of that guide. Every party and every media outlet create their own (and different) abstractions and push them at you. It would be kind of like if the TV came packaged with Quick Start Guides written by Sony, Toshiba, and Samsung for your new LG television. I suspect that wouldn’t be too helpful.
Then the analogy then goes completely off the rails when you get into the pork that usually gets thrown into legislation. It would be as if Panasonic tucked a coffee maker into the back of the TV, but didn’t bother to advertise it.
This is about the point where I decide that I am glad Congress didn’t design my television, and I think I also understand why there are so few engineers in politics.