Upon election to office, politicians come to believe that they have the wherewithal to solve the world's toughest problems. They usually mishandle the nuts-and-bolts chores they're charged with addressing, yet dream of altering the Earth's climate and eliminating enduring human conditions such as inequality and poverty.
Most pols view themselves as the second coming of John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, or even Ronald Reagan, when most of us just want public servants who make sure the potholes are filled, the streets are marginally safe, the government budget balances, the trash gets picked up on time, and homeless people aren't defecating in our local park.
The latest example of such governmental hubris comes from the county of Los Angeles which, you know, can't even put an end to alleged gangs among the ranks of its own highly paid deputy sheriffs nor figure out how to run its child-protective services agency in a competent and humane manner. Now county officials want to "solve" the crisis of loneliness.
Before Christmas, the county Board of Supervisors "took on a problem that is typically private and put it in the public eye," The Los Angeles Times reported. "They voted unanimously to ask staffers to research how residents are affected by loneliness and isolation and how the county can help—particularly during a pandemic where in-person contact has been off-limits."
Loneliness is a serious mental-health scourge, but the last part of the above sentence provides insight into the main reason for the current bout of isolation. Governments want to study why we feel lonely and disconnected, but government pandemic rules limited the ability of Americans to socialize with one another as we approach two years of mandated social-distancing rules.
"Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, researchers warned in a recent webcast, and the problem is particularly acute among seniors, especially during holidays," according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. You probably didn't even know that there is a federal agency with such a name, but I digress.
"A Harvard University survey conducted in October 2020 found that feelings of social isolation are on the rise during the pandemic, and that those hardest hit are older teens and young adults—61 percent of respondents felt 'serious loneliness,'" noted a Boston University report. "And social media, where young people live and breathe more than any previous generation, is not helping."
Say it ain't so. I'm not sure what Los Angeles County staffers will add to the debate, but the board might have thought about that scenario when it previously embraced draconian shutdowns rather than more reasonable and flexible pandemic-related restrictions. This is such a government phenomenon—create a crisis, then vow to solve it for us.
Fortunately, the county isn't planning on repeating its mistakes as the Omicron variant emerges, at least not as of this writing. I don't mean to be too hard on county supervisors, who at least acknowledge the pandemic-related policy causes of the Great Alienation. Their intentions are good, but you know what they say about good intentions.
"We didn't mean to do it," Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said during the board meeting. "We don't mean to cause isolation. But we are, in some cases, a part of the problem." Indeed. Government officials don't mean to cause many of the problems they do cause, which is good reason to at least show skepticism next time they want to save us from something.
Do a Google search of "loneliness epidemic" and you'll find multiple news stories, government statements, and academic reports—some even pre-dating COVID-19. A well-known book from 22 years ago, "Bowling Alone," spotlighted the crisis in connectedness caused by trends in family, work, and media.
I don't minimize this issue, but my wife offered my kids the best advice: Get together with friends. Turn off the TV. Log out of Facebook. Perhaps I should put her in touch with county brain trusts. Some issues are beyond the pale of government intervention. Sometimes we have to take control of our lives.
We all play along with the notion that politicians can solve all of our problems, even though we know better. I don't know anyone who has heard, say, Gov. Gavin Newsom's soaring rhetoric and come away thinking he'll really change the Earth's climate—even as he fails to keep his own Employment Development Department from sending billions of dollars in unemployment funds to scammers.
It's not a Democrat vs. Republican thing, either, as GOP politicians have suddenly discovered the supposed crisis of masculinity just as they have long bemoaned troubles in the American family. Politicians are adept at mining votes by identifying societal shortcomings, but their solutions always involve giving them more money and power.
I eagerly await Los Angeles County's report on loneliness, but I still wish county supervisors would spend more time filling the potholes.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.