Problem Solvers

Posted By Elgin Hushbeck

There is a common perception, particularly among those who see themselves as independent thinkers, that the so called ideologues on both sides are the real problem because they put their ideology ahead of the good of the country.  Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly recently expressed a version of this perception when he said that he didn’t care which side won, he just wanted people who would be “problem solvers” who would come in and fix things.

There are a couple of things wrong with such a view.  One problem is that it is uncritically self-serving.   It tends to be uncritical in that it dismisses those on the right and the left as biased towards their ideology while it sees the “independent thinker” as better because they are above the fray.  The independent thinker does not get involved in fights between the various sides as they see this as little more than partisan bickering aimed more at winning than at getting things done.  

Now there is certainly some truth in all this, as there are those on both sides of the spectrum for whom winning trumps all. But I do not believe this is an accurate generalization for this perception fails to realize is that there is in reality no such thing as just solving a problem.  To solve a problem one must,

1)      Realize that there is a problem.

2)      Understand the scope and reasons for the problem.

3)      Come up with a basic approach for a solution.

4)      Work out the details of the solution to be implemented.

5)      Implement the solution

6)      Test the solution to see if it works. 

Only if the last step gives a positive result can there said to be a solution.  The problem is that many independent thinkers tend to act as if they are the only ones interested in reaching a solution, while the Ideologues are just too busy with defeating the other side.

 In reality most people, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum want a positive result to step 6.  For the most part, what the independent thinkers regards as partisan bickering are really disagreements over steps 1-4, and as a result of these disagreements, we never reach steps 5 or 6 on a whole range of issues.

One good example of this can be seen in the debate over Social Security.  Now there is general agreement among most that there is a problem particularly the farther into the future you go. However this is not universal. When we come to point two, there is a major difference between Right and Left, for the Left sees Social Security as basically a sound programs that has a funding problem, whereas the Right sees it as inherently structurally flawed.  This leads to little agreement over step 3, the basic approach to a solution, which means that we never even get to the rest of the steps required for a solution. 

The Left wants to basically keep Social Security as it is, and change the benefits and/or taxes to bring it back into balance.  The Right wants to fundamentally change how the program works so as to be closer to individual retirement accounts.  These basic approaches for a solution are mutually exclusive.  You cannot keep Social Security basically as it is, and radically change it at the same time. The reason neither side has solved this problem is that there is not enough of a consensus on either side to pass a bill.

Asking for a “problems solver” in this case makes little sense and it is counterproductive.  It does not make sense because the basic dispute is not over should we solve the problem, with the independent thinkers coming down decisively on the side of solving it, but rather the dispute is over the scope and nature of the problem, a dispute which then leads the respective sides to propose fundamentally different approaches. 

Nor can the independent thinker realistically say that it does not make a difference, either way is fine, because proposals of each side are mutually exclusive.  If the Left is correct, and the basic system is sound, then the Right’s proposals could end up causing more problems, by replacing a sound system with one that is unsound.  On the other hand, if the Right is correct, and the basic system is unsound, then the Left’s proposals would at best only delay fixing the problem. The time lost to discover this error would only allow the problem to get worst and even harder to solve. 

While many bills can be passed by splitting the difference, for such a difference there is really no such thing, you either keep the basic system or you change it.  To sort of change it is akin to being sort of pregnant, there really is no middle ground, and political compromises that allow politicians to claim a solution for the next election tend to result in the worst of both world rather than any solution.

Thus asking for a “problem solver” is counterproductive as it not only diverts attention away from the real problem, but it diverts it onto the very people that are at least actively trying to solve it.  Thus we are currently at a stalemate, not only on Social Security reform, but on a whole range of other issues, such as Public education, Health Care, etc.  The only way to break the stalemate is if enough of a consensus forms around one of the options so that effective legislation can become law.   Yet this requires that the independent thinker pick a side. While to do so would make them a partisan, at least it would be for the good of the country.

Nov 20th, 2007

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