Discussions of public policy frequently take place inside frames that are difficult to discern clearly without effort. Which goals are fixed and which are negotiable? Which changes are acceptable and which are not?

Take, oh, homelessness. The brute fact is that we could solve homelessness in the U.S. tomorrow if we so chose. We could house and feed every homeless person for the rest of their life. It would be expensive, but not that expensive, relative to what we spend on, say, defense, or Medicare, or Social Security. We are, after all, an extraordinarily wealthy country.

I’m not recommending that policy, mind you, just pointing out that it’s a possibility. We often hear that a certain level of homelessness is inevitable and immutable. It’s not. It’s a choice. We accept a certain amount of homelessness in exchange for lower public spending.

I often ponder this fact when reading stories about energy. Inevitably such stories cite Americans’ rising demand for electricity (the EIA says we’ll need 30% more by 2030). Even in straight news reports, these projections are taken as the fixed point around which policy much hinge. We must generate that much electricity; if we can do it with renewables, great, but if not, we’ll just have to use coal and live with the consequences.

Imagine a different frame: We must keep atmospheric CO2 concentrations down and the Appalachian mountains intact; if we can do that while producing ever-rising amounts of electricity, great, but if not we’ll just have to reduce electricity demand through efficiency and conservation.

I don’t have any particularly deep conclusion here. It’s just worth noting that there’s no reason to accept electricity demand projections as sacrosanct. They are, like everything else, negotiable, subject to trade-offs, one of many competing social values. Someone should tell the media.