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Can our system address America's big problems?

A Vanity Fair magazine article written by Todd Purdum, a national editor and political correspondent for Vanity Fair, served as the inspiration for a roundtable discussion on public policy gridlock Thursday afternoon.

The event, which took place in Rubenstein Hall, marked the start of a two-year series of programming started by David Schanzer, associate professor of the practice for public policy, and Don Taylor, associate professor of public policy studies, called “Gridlock—Can our system address America’s big problems?”

The series will focus on how the national government can address problems facing the nation such as global warming, health care and the economy and is scheduled to run until the 2012 presidential election, when Schanzer and Taylor hope it will lead to an academic program at Duke.

“Don Taylor popped his head in my office during the summer of the health care reform debate when it was a really hot subject,” Schanzer said when asked to describe the inception of the program. “He blogged regularly and knew I had a history in federal government so we got into several conversations answering questions on processes and discussed fact distortion [and] problems with the media.”

Schanzer agreed that these issues were indicative of a larger problem that the Sanford School of Public Policy should address.

The 27 attendees at the discussion Thursday included graduate students from Sanford and the Pratt School of Engineering, as well as Duke faculty and a small group of undergraduate students.

Led by Schanzer and Taylor, the meeting was a discussion open to any input about public policy or suggestions about the program.

“The U.N. was trying to make a legally binding global environmental agreement for post-2012 when the Kyoto conference expires,” said Naima Ritter, a senior who was in Copenhagen during the 2009 Copenhagaen Climate Conference. “Over 100 states participated, but it was so frustrating to see nothing was getting done for such a pressing matter due to political gridlock.”

She added that that was the reason she and several others attended the meeting.

Schanzer and Taylor carefully steered the conversation away from political debate and toward policy discussion.

“My biggest motivation to start [this] series over [the] next couple years is to tell you guys that are younger than me that you have got to be involved... because it affects you and me,” Taylor said. “Our baby boomer parents have proven that they can’t deal with these hard issues.”

Taylor clarified that he did not want to assign blame for problems but rather to think of innovative solutions. He added that he believes these issues of media dishonesty, the effects of primaries and people’s inability to sacrifice for the greater good all transcend party lines.

“I don’t see partisanship as being inherently evil,” Schanzer said, adding that it does stop the government from addressing the nation’s problems effectively.

Schanzer and Taylor hope the program will help prepare students to address these problems once they leave Duke.

This new academic option will go into effect in 2012 and will include a research component with stipends for honors theses, a blog to be updated by undergraduate and graduate students, a speakers’ series with prominent public figures and a course on gridlock to be taught by a variety of professors.

The attendees had varied opinions on gridlock, which Schanzer and Taylor encouraged as an effective way to approach the problem and an indication that Duke is in need of a program like this.


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