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August 02, 2011

Compromise is a Means, Not an End

"We have a compromise," the President said. He went on to say that we should've had a compromise earlier. I would've rather heard him say "we have a plan".

Suppose you're one of two people in a canoe. You think the way to your destination is north; your companion thinks it's south. You compromise by each paddling in the direction he or she thinks is the right one. The canoe goes nowhere. Compromise is not the answer. A plan would be to start in one direction or the other wholeheartedly and to look for signs affirming or contradicting the chosen course.

For decades we have had national disagreement about whether or not to go to war – in Viet Nam, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Libya. We've compromised by 1) not declaring we're at war; 2) not recognizing the cost of war; 3) and not immediately supplying enough resources to win. The results have been the longest wars in our history and more death and suffering than if we had gone all out. We are better off not going to war at all than compromising on a half-hearted effort. A compromise is not a plan.

Some Americans believe sincerely that we should have a welfare state and that the government should be the instrument of income redistribution. Others believe just as sincerely that the overall good is better served by a free market and a small government limited to essential functions, which do not include assuring equal outcomes or success. There is nothing wrong with having this argument in a democracy; even though it isn't clear that there is a compromise between the two points of view, we still have decisions to make. What we have stumbled into, IMHO, is an ineffectual welfare state that is better at saving banks than people and has promised entitlements to the middle class (as a compromise to get middle class support for welfare and bank bailouts) which can't possibly be paid for except by this same middle class. "Compromise" has meant promising benefits today and collecting the bill later – meanwhile borrowing heavily to cover the deficits. We're better off without such a compromise. It would be better either to pay for our benefits as we go or not have the illusion of benefits which can't be delivered.

Despite the current mantra in the media that we sent our representatives to Washington to compromise, we actually sent them to run the government. Constructive compromise is an essential tool in getting action in a democracy; but compromise – like change – is a means and not an end.

Snarky postscript: note to POTUS, Serious negotiations are not like your daughters' homework; they don't get done early. Both sides need to demonstrate that they held out until the last possible minute for the best possible deal. Would you have liked to explain to Democrats in Congress that you had to accept much less than you wanted but the negotiations ended a week early and everyone gets to go play golf?

Positive postscript: Since earmarks have been banned, party leaders had a harder time just buying the votes they needed to assure control. They had to focus on the merits of the issues in their arm-twisting.

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