There’s always something more important

One of the things that keeps coming in policy discussions, particularly discussions in public, is that there is always something more important than the issue at hand. For example, take this news story in the town where I live. One of the local townships’ police departments is offering to take prescription drugs and dispose of them properly:

“The Penn Township Police Department has installed a medicine return box at its station on Wayne Avenue for the proper disposal of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Residents can deposit their prescription medicines, patches, ointments, inhalers and over-the-counter vitamins, samples and pet medications in the green and white metal box.”

It sounds like a great idea, especially because drugs can be dangerous if used out of date, if used when not needed, or if someone comes upon them in the trash. If you opt to dump the drugs in to toilet, they may make it to the watershed or even the water supply, causing all sorts of environmental problems. However, one man’s great idea is another man’s waste of taxpayer money. This was evident on the newspaper’s Facebook page, where comments included:

“What a waste of money… that’s all this area does is waste tax payers money! Here’s an idea.. rip off the labels.. and flush the freaking pills like everyone else!”

When someone pointed out to them that drugs down the toilet contaminate the water, someone else wrote:

“what about all other waste thats put into water..no one cares about that do they”

And:

“This is what our tax dollars pay for? Really?”

People on public online forums are not the only ones that have an “allergic reaction” to public policy implementations. Elected representatives react the same way, and they’re more vociferous about it. If someone wants to make immigration an issue to be solved, someone else says that we should focus on jobs. If someone offers to add jobs, someone else says that jobs are nothing without public safety. And so on…

The reality of the matter is that we all see the world from our own point of view first, and then from the point of view of others. Our own experiences in life dictate how we react to things. If someone despises the government, or taxes, they’re going to label next to everything as a “government waste” or a “waste of taxpayer money,” even if the program or service or intervention is not costing taxpayer money. (You see this argument a lot with the US Postal System, where people think tax money goes to support it while it is supported through sales of products and services, not tax money.)

A few months ago, I had a discussion with a man who claimed that people should be left to drown if they’re dumb enough to swim into a lake. I was taken aback by his honest suggestion that it was a waste of taxpayer money and resources to try and save him. The swimmer eventually died, and the man I was discussing this with said that it was for the better since taxpayers would have had to pay for the victim’s medical bills or long-term disability. Needless to say, the discussion deteriorated because his point of view bothered me a lot.

I wouldn’t be going into public health if I believed that people should be left to their own devices.

In the coming months and years, I’m going to have to “sell” ideas and projects to people that have a different point of view from mine. We may even be at completely opposite ends of the political spectrum. More complicated yet, my idea of what is the right thing to do may not be their idea of what is the right thing to do. I can almost guarantee that there will be fireworks.

So I guess I have to learn all about compromise… And how to be really good at convincing people. And I also need to learn that my priorities are not always going to be number one, either.

I'm a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen