Just in case you haven’t had Enough of the conflict minerals debate…

David Sullivan and Laura Heaton respond to the negative blogger buzz around the conflict minerals legislation they helped push through.

Their central point, I believe, boils down to this: conflict minerals might not be the most effective policy change, but it’s the policy we can change most effectively.

This is a good lesson in public policy-making: you don’t choose a policy because it’s the best one imaginable; you must consider other variables. Most of all, the effectiveness of each policy option has to be balanced by whether you can effect the change. If you want it spelled out:

Actual Impact = Pr(Success) x Potential Impact

In the spirit of debate and transparency, I’m going try to be provocative, with three points.

First, let’s tackle potential impact. They argue for substantial change:

So how do we expect to see this new law change the calculations of those currently benefiting from the minerals trade?

…if the regulation is written to appropriately include the thousands of companies that depend upon these materials to manufacture electronics, jewelry and other products, we believe it could create the ‘demand shock’ necessary to change the present dynamics on the ground in Congo.

This demand shock is central to their argument. The obvious question: will the legislation shock the demand? Dan Fahey wrote that only a very small percentage of the world’s supply of these minerals come from the Congo. If the BRIC nations don’t enforce the legislation, or if the courts don’t include the vast majority of manufacturers, the policy will create no shock at all.

This is a simple quantity argument. It may or may not be true. But estimating demand shocks is one of the oldest and simplest tools in the economic toolbox. Has anyone done this calculation? A good econ grad student could pump it out. In the absence of evidence, signs point to a small potential impact.

(There is hope, though. A commenter argues that manufacturers are the wrong ones to target, but that the market has a real choke point: processors. If true, these are the details we want to be sure the legislation gets right.)

Second, even if the potential impact is modest, there’s a good argument for the legislation if they have a high probability of success. Here there is another clear argument from Enough:

There are numerous other pressure points that the international community should help address…

But the conflict minerals issue resonates with a potent group of actors in the United States, namely, advocates and concerned consumers who do not want their purchases to fund armed groups in Congo, a handful of dedicated members of Congress and leaders in the Obama administration who see a lasting solution to the Congo conflict as part of their personal priorities and legacies, and increasingly, leaders in the electronics industry itself, which is responding to the moral and consumer pressure to take on this issue.

For a small advocacy organization, we would stop here. For one of the largest and most influential human rights campaigners in the country, I hope for more. This is Enough, after all, not Good Enough.

Let’s campaign for policies that are powerful, not just popular. Enough has mentioned peacekeeping support among a host of tougher, more effective-seeming solutions. Are these so unattainable?

Yes, the simple and sexy solution resonates with church groups, college students, and small-town news editors. But please tell me that some of the greatest marketing minds in international advocacy can come up with slogans, campaigns and, yes, bracelets, for a less obviously popular cause.

In a different realm–women’s poverty–organizations like SAVE and CARE and Nike Foundation have not taken the easy (and hugely profitable) route–“YOU can save the poor and helpless starving woman”–but have made a harder but better message succeed: “Women are economic powerhouses. Invest in them.”

Making that campaign work took good sense and guts, and the Enough staff have plenty of both. I say let’s rise to the challenge and make the higher impact, tougher sells work.

Third and last, the simple policy equation I gave was incomplete. It should have gone something like this:

Actual Impact = Pr(Success) x [Potential Impact – Adverse Effects]

You also have to consider unintended consequences. What if victory on a high-profile, sexy, but ultimately limited issue keeps Congress from acting on the important things? If the price of victory is complacency, it is a price too dear.

These three points are not a matter of opinion. They are a matter of facts. The tragedy is the facts aren’t clear, and so we settle back on opinion and its popular cousin, hope. For me, the facts so far don’t seem Enough.