Political leaders and other advocates often talk about “common sense solutions,” but there are problems with common sense. For starters, much of is called “common sense” isn’t common, or isn’t sensible. (More)

Common Sense Problems, Part I: Common and Sensible?

This week Morning Feature considers the problems with “common sense.” Today we begin why many ideas are called “common sense” yet in fact are not both common and sensible. Tomorrow we’ll see some ideas that are both common and sensible, yet are still false. Saturday we’ll conclude with ideas that defy common sense, yet are still true.

“Common sense solutions”

President Obama often calls for “common sense solutions.” After the debt ceiling debacle of August 2011, he proposed “common sense solutions” to boost economic growth. This January in Las Vegas, he called for “common sense” immigration reform. And in his State of the Union Address this year, he called for “common sense solutions” on issues ranging from the economy to education to gun safety.

Yet a quick scroll through the comments, most posted by readers who disagree with the President, would leave you wondering what “common sense” means. After all, as one Yahoo comment noted:

Funny to hear Obama say “common sense solutions”. Those have been Sarah Palin’s words exactly. I guess this really reveals that those kind of words are completely subjective!

That’s at least partly true. Sarah Palin also called her ideas “common sense solutions.” So has Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), for whom Washington Post FactChecker Glenn Kessler couldn’t find enough Pinocchios. So has Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) … and he’s willing to work with Martians to implement them. Okay then.

There’s even a group called Americans for Common Sense Solutions, and a quick look at their website confirms they disagree with President Obama on … everything.

“What I believe to be true”

It seems that “common sense” is a slippery concept. Digital communication strategist Stephen Gracey breaks it down quite well:

“Common Sense” is a dangerous basis for strategy…or almost anything, for that matter. In fact, rather than common “sense,” we ought to call it “Common Presumption.” If I were to unpack the sentence, “It’s just common sense,” I would restate it as:

“This is what I believe to be true because it draws upon a reservoir of beliefs held by people who are like me, who see things in the same way as I do, and who are close to me, and so we don’t need to look any more closely at the situation.”

That’s not quite “subjective,” but it’s hardly objective or empirical. Instead, “common sense” is intersubjective: ideas and beliefs that are shared by like-minded but still subjective individuals.

For example, ask New England Patriots fans if Tom Brady is the best quarterback in NFL history, and you’re likely to hear a lot of “common sense” answers. Ask the same question in another NFL city, like Green Bay, and you’ll get “common sense” answers for why Aaron Rodgers is the best.

Common and sensible?

That’s partly hometown loyalty, but it’s also partly an example of the exposure effect. Football fans in New England can watch every Patriots’ game and talk about those games the next week. Likewise, fans in Green Bay can watch and chew over every Packers’ game. Their respective quarterbacks are in the news almost constantly, especially during the football season. Both Brady and Rodgers are excellent players, and their constant local exposure gives their fans a big database of “common sense” reasons to claim “best ever” status.

But public policy should require “common sense” to mean something more than “people who are like me all agree.”

In terms of U.S. domestic policy, “common sense” should at least mean a majority of Americans agree. In foreign policy we should also expect that at least some of our allies agree. Of course not everyone will agree on any “common sense” proposal, but if the only people who agree with you are people who are just like you … it’s probably not “common.”

We should also expect that “common sense” ideas make intuitive sense. In 1980, Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush called supply-side theory “voodoo economics” for good reason. While most Republicans believe that “tax cuts pay for themselves” and helping hardworking families always creates a “culture of dependency,” those ideas don’t make intuitive sense. Again, if only people who agree with you can understand your explanation … it’s probably not “sensible.”

President Obama’s “common sense solutions”

Thus we return to President Obama’s calls for “common sense solutions.” On gun safety, most Americans do agree with universal background checks, and it makes intuitive sense that stopping convicted felons and dangerously deranged people from buying guns will reduce gun violence.

Similarly, polls show majority support for immigration reform proposals including a path to citizenship, and it makes intuitive sense that otherwise law-abiding people who have lived here for years – working, paying taxes, building family and community ties like generations of other immigrants before them – should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and earn citizenship.

And most Americans agree that a balanced approach of tax increases and spending cuts is the best way to solve our long-term debt. Again, that makes intuitive sense as tax increases alone cannot close the gap while closing it with spending cuts alone would crush public investment in education and infrastructure and programs that protect hardworking families.

In short, each of these proposals really is “common sense” … even if Americans for Common Sense Solutions disagree. Because “common sense” as they use that phrase is not about ideas that are both common and sensible. Instead, and too often, “common sense” is simply a label slapped an idea in an attempt to paint those who disagree as “radical” and/or “nonsensical.”

President Obama calls his ideas “common sense solutions” in part because most of them really are, and in part to claim that same label. After all, if Republicans were the only party claiming “common sense solutions,” people might start to think their ideas really were … common sense.


Happy Thursday!