Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Blame Game

There was a great cartoon in the New Yorker a couple of months ago, showing a family lost in the jungle. The father, scratching his chin, is saying, "OK, I admit it, we're lost. But the important thing is to remain focused on whose fault it is." I'm thinking of getting a framed copy to hang in the room where I conduct mediations. Frequently the task in a mediation is to get the parties away from focusing on recriminations and blame for how they got themselves into their situation, and toward focusing on possible solutions to their conflict. It might be helpful for people to look at this picture, which enables us to see how obviously ridiculous it is for a family lost in the jungle to spend their time arguing about how they got there, instead of working together to find a way out.

In politics, which ought to be mainly forward looking, we also find a tendency to spend more time assigning blame than solving problems. Partly that is because politicians can often advance their own electoral interests by blaming the other party for whatever problems people are concerned about. And partly it seems to be a natural tendency, like the family in the jungle, for people to remain preoccupied with how they got into the fix they are in, because they have no idea how to escape.

Congress just finished an epic struggle over trying to fix a long term structural deficit problem in the federal budget. It is questionable whether this was even the most pressing problem Congress had to deal with at this moment (it was only pressing because Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling until this problem was addressed).  It is also questionable whether the compromise bill enacted to deal with the deficit problem, which will pass some of the difficult decisions to a super-committee that is yet to be formed, really does much of anything, especially in the short term, to reduce the deficit. Yet at least the bill did manage to let us escape from the uncharted territory of defaulting on the government's obligations. In that way it represents a path forward.

There is still so much left over bitterness from this debt ceiling battle, however, that instead of pursuing that path forward, the parties just entered into a new round in the blame game. Democrats blamed Republicans for holding the country hostage. Republicans blamed Democrats for not following their budget advice sooner. And partisans on both sides are blaming their own leaders for compromising so much to get a deal done. Meanwhile the stock market is crashing. Perhaps the market crash was caused in part by Congress's weak response to the deficit issue. Perhaps it was caused by the perception that cutting government spending will only make the economy worse. And perhaps the market is crashing due to other economic factors happening in this country and all around the world. Perhaps all of the above. Nobody seems to know for sure. This uncertainty is not stopping an even newer round in the blame game, on top of the one that just started a couple of days ago. Republicans say bigger spending cuts would have reassured the markets. Democrats say that the last thing the markets want to see are more spending cuts. We are still spending most of our energy arguing about how we got here, and whose fault it is. We either don't know, or we can't agree on how to get out of the jungle we find ourselves lost in.


  1. Good post Joe.

    We must get some of the 18.2 million people who are unemployed working again. We are going to have to begin growing ourselves out of financial trouble.

    Step one might be to eliminate the discussion about things that will not get done right now given the current atmosphere we find ourselves in and instead focus on what can be done. The government will not be creating new jobs by spending money we don't have right now. That leaves us few choices. However, they happen to be some of the best choices available to us.

    We are wealthy when it comes to resources. We can immediately create jobs and move toward energy independence by combining oil exploration and drilling, with the extraction of natural gas and continued advancement of renewable clean energy.

    We can create an infrastructure bank (if Tim Geitner would get out of the way) and have private investment begin rebuilding our infrastructure.

    We can enact short term trade tariffs to soften the trade deficits, particularly with China.

    We can end tax incentives to companies that are investing overseas and bring some of that money back home.

    These job creation ideas can get done _right now_. We don't have to go into debt to do these things and they will generate jobs and rebuild America. These are not left or right issues. They are job creation ideas.

  2. This will take an electoral decision by the American people. Divided government produces this type of blame game. If, in 2012, the Dems or Republicans are routed we will see less of this.

  3. I was just reading something about the Constitutional convention, which reminded me that the Founders came very close to deciding that the president should be elected by `Congress, which would have given us something much closer to a parliamentary system. I wonder how that would have worked out.

  4. A hallmark of parliamentary systems is they are often unstable and lead to governing coalitions. Ok, maybe, for a small nation but not a big one.