Never Another Budget Crisis: Two Fixes We Can Make Right Now

I know I'm not alone in my frustration with our elected leaders' recent struggles with... well, with leadership. The fact that they created a financial disaster for our nation, and then failed to fix it in any permanent way, troubles me.
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I know I'm not alone in my frustration with our elected leaders' recent struggles with... well, with leadership. The fact that they created a financial disaster for our nation, and then failed to fix it in any permanent way, troubles me.

I'm not a close follower of the intricacies of our nation's capital, but even watching from a distance I was reminded of a dysfunctional workplace from my past. It was a politically charged business in which, among other things, we owed quarterly written reports to customers. Nobody could ever agree on the contents of those reports, so they never got done. On the due date, a sort of corporate town crier would (literally) walk the halls yelling "it's the end of the quarter!" Panic would ensue and we'd throw together poor-quality reports at the very last minute. It was as crazy as it sounds, and the root cause of our self-inflicted nightmare was simple: otherwise intelligent people becoming opinionated, digging in their heels, grandstanding, talking past each other, and refusing to interact productively until overwhelming time pressure forced them into ill-conceived compromises.

Sound familiar?

The good news is, we have a well-defined problem: heel digging, grandstanding, talking past each other, and refusing to interact productively, or HGTR. So, how do we address the causes of HGTR? I suggest we do so as quickly and as simply as possible. To that end, I present two major causes of HGTR, and a possible fix for each.

Complete Certainty
When you are sure beyond a doubt of your rightness, it makes it extremely difficult to listen carefully or interact productively. If you're a dictator, that's probably OK -- you can just bark orders. But if you're one of dozens of members of a governing body, complete certainty is a recipe for HGTR.

How can our leaders avoid this trap? Of many possible solutions, let me suggest the simplest: every member of our government should be addressed and cited, with all due respect, by his or her first name. Power creates distance. Inapproachable people receive less useful advice -- advice that contradicts their own ideas -- than approachable ones. If recent events are any indication, our leaders need more useful advice. They need to hear things like "you'd better swallow your pride and work it out," "they won't agree to that, no matter how much you want it," and "you're running out of time." A first name basis shrinks the chasm between leader and advisor: it makes difficult messages easier for an advisor to say, and easier for a leader to hear.

By the way, in case you're worried, a first name basis doesn't imply reduced respect for authority. Plenty of powerful people, known only by their first names, have run huge corporations. Everybody still respected them, and everybody still knew they were in charge.

The Divine Mission
When someone prefaces his or her purpose with a statement of incontrovertible authority, you have a divine mission. "My constituents elected me to put a stop to this" is a great example. There's no room for productive discussion, because you can't talk to the constituents directly, and you can't argue with their powerless messenger. If you put two people on two different divine missions together, you're destined to get HGTR. It's a natural result.

This problem evaporates with a slight, but significant, adjustment to our leaders' job descriptions. We must be clearer than we have been: our leaders' role is not to protect their constituents' interests above those of other Americans, but to optimize a balance between everyone's interests. From now on, whenever anyone writes to a Senator, goes on TV to talk about the performance of a member of Congress, or appears on radio talking about any elected official, I propose that he or she begin with a statement like this: "The role of our leaders, as we all know, is to intelligently balance competing constraints. Here's how well Ed performed at that goal today..."

If enough people say those sorts of things, maybe our leaders will hear them. Perhaps a kind of enhanced job description will find its way into elections, too. Candidates might catch wind of public sentiment and begin campaigning on their maturity and adeptness at complex problem solving, rather than campaigning on untenable promises to handle difficult issues with oversimplified solutions. Maybe -- just maybe -- we'll even adjust media fairness rules, so that not only will we we see equal airtime requirements for opposing parties, but we'll also see equal airtime requirements for a single individual to present opposing viewpoints on the same issue.

That's it, just two things: call our leaders by their first names, and remind them of the real complexity of their jobs. It's not a complete solution, I know, but it would be a great start.

You might argue, of course, that we don't need a new start. You might suggest that we keep doing the same thing we have been doing, but expect different results. If that's your position, I promise not to waste your time arguing with you. But, I do suggest that you consider the creation of one more government position: "The Federal Crier." That way, someone can run down the halls in a few months and let our leadership know it's time for another fire drill.

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