My Turn: Are we brave enough to be better?

For the Monitor
Published: 5/19/2019 12:25:17 AM

I’ve had a bit of a break from the State House lately. Which was good, because I needed to get caught up on my real job, running our farm. There was a time when many of my fellow representatives would have been in the same position – that is, needing to get home to work on the farm. Today, as best I can tell, there are just two of us in the State House who farm full time, one of us from each party.

I expect when farmers dominated the Legislature, the topics under consideration were a bit different than today. But, speaking for myself at least, my perspective on legislation and public policy is informed by my experience on the farm. Take, for example, blackberries – one of our thornier endeavors (pun intended).

Six years ago, we planted several hundred blackberry bushes. They fit in with our small ventures in raspberries, apples and blueberries, and our ongoing effort to give people multiple reasons to come to the farm, that is to pick your own fruit. Plus, blackberries taste great.

We didn’t jump into this venture lightly: We conferred with our orchard specialist, chose the best variety for our location and identified the best site on the farm to plant them. Having done our research, we invested the money and time in blackberries. That was six years ago. This spring, when I’m not in Concord, I spend a great deal of time ripping out blackberry bushes. Why? Because despite our best efforts they’ve never produced a crop.

We didn’t make the decision to plant the blackberries lightly. And we didn’t decide to remove them hastily either. We gave it a good shot, spent several seasons trying to make it work and pulled the plug when it was clear blackberries weren’t going to happen.

This strikes me as a pretty common-sense approach to not just farming, but public policy as well. We study, we seek input, we make a decision. Then we put in the effort to make it successful, and hopefully the majority of our efforts do succeed. But when they don’t, we pull the plug. It’s this process – one of being brave enough to fail and resilient enough to move on – that allows for innovation and progress.

The problem is that all too often I see elected officials who are too scared to try something new, who seem to fear the very notion of change. A mentor of mine back in the day – a man who competed in the last six Olympic Games, which is to say someone who knows a thing or two about staying at the top of his game – used to say to me: “If we’re not changing, we’re not getting better. And if we’re not getting better, we’re getting worse.” I genuinely believe that’s true in just about every setting, be it our personal lives, our professional lives, and yes, in our public policy. Show me a parent who doesn’t change strategies with each new phase of their child’s growth, and I’ll show you a slow-motion disaster. Show me a business that isn’t ready to innovate, and I’ll show you a business that is becoming obsolete. Show me a government that isn’t open to change, and I’ll show one that isn’t serving the needs of its public.

Yes, change is hard. Just like those blackberries, it can be thorny (pun still intended). It means letting go of how we’ve always done things, admitting that maybe the status quo isn’t perfect.

Recently we’ve seen the governor cling to something completely archaic: the death penalty. The Legislature repealed the death penalty with bipartisan support. The governor killed our efforts. We offered up legislation, also vetoed, to provide paid family and medical leave, which is really about meeting practical challenges that face many of us, like caring for a loved one during a prolonged illness or seeking residential treatment for opioid addiction. But encoding these ideas into law requires a certain bravery – a willingness to try new things in the hope of reaching new successes, of having the courage to fail.

Does anyone really think that if we repeal the death penalty our state’s murder rate will increase? (Spoiler alert: It didn’t in Illinois.) And seriously, even if it did, does anyone really think we wouldn’t act quickly to reinstate the death penalty? Does anyone seriously think the .5% payroll tax that would have funded paid family and medical leave is so burdensome that we should continue to deny Granite Staters the chance to be with a loved one at the end of their life, or to get clean and sober?

Give me a break. What these vetoes are about is fear. Cowardice. A lack of sufficient imagination to see that we can in fact do things better and differently than in the past. And that in doing so we open up to the possibility of real progress.

I like to think that back when the State House was full of farmers, they were open to the idea of change. Surely they saw it on their own farms when they switched from horses to tractors. Or square hay bales to round ones. Or more recently, sap buckets to vacuum systems for making maple syrup.

Of course the composition of the State House has changed, and that too is a good thing. Today there are more openly gay members of the State House than farmers, more immigrants than farmers, more people of color than farmers. That’s change. And I think we can all agree it’s progress.

(Craig R. Thompson of Harrisville represents Cheshire District 14 in the N.H. House of Representatives.)


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