Thursday, February 19, 2009

Stimulus Counter Proposal

This morning a friend (a political professional) called:

"Excellent article Frank. I fully agree with the critique you laid out vis a vis the process that led up to passing the current stimulus package. But I must ask, what is your counter proposal?"

I responded that I did in fact have one, but my ignorance of the technical aspects of political life made me reluctant to put it forth.

He encouraged me on two fronts:
  1. As a person of ideas, it is your responsibility to live under that maxim that no idea is a bad idea. Others will help and refine on those occasions when your recommendations lack understanding.
  2. Secondly, the actual counter proposal I DID have, and proceeded to explain, in fact (according to this fellow) warranted airing in its content, substance, and its own right (not just "on principle").
The counter proposal view that I did not delineate as the way to approach the stimulus package in the "new way of politics" that Obama (and every president before him ) promised, lies in working one's way systematically, piece by piece through the available resources (780 billion) with consensus and emergency as the twin poles for generating prioritization.

Spending available funds piece by piece as emergency generates consensus and cooperation, does 3 things:
  1. It creates incentive for cooperation
  2. It nullifies horse-trading as a corrupt and sleazy form of "cooperation," "compromise."
  3. It allows ideological encounter on a high minded platform of care and public service en route eventually to collaborating on the most difficult areas of difference.
I compared this approach to the stimulus bill to "leaving Jerusalem for last," alluding to my view that there are tremendous steps toward peace that Israelis and Holy Land Arabs can take, without forcing onto the conversation as a massive stumbling block at the very outset the most intractable and difficult elements of the dialogue. Leave the biggest differences out (for the time being), and build up the muscles of cooperation while practicing on the matters where differences are small and emergency allows for cooperation over small gaps of difference.

This is the only pattern toward reconciliation that can work. Horse trading simply does not work. It does not create (the all necessary element of) deeper understanding of opposing passions and ideologies.

Thus all 780 billion in the stimulus package did not have to be decided upon before a dollar could be spent. It is that assumption that results in politics as usual, in pork, horse trading, and in ongoing partisan entrenchment that I criticized in my article.

Here's the model. My family has $5,000. We will spend all of it. The roof is leaking, Dad "needs" new clubs, daughter "needs" a new phone, the block association is threatening to have us evicted over the length of our grass. OK old politics, "Dad you can have your clubs if I can have a new phone every 6 months for the next 3 years." "The roof is leaking, can we take care of this please?" "You don't touch the roof until I get my phones." What family would possibly live like this?

The only way a family would suffer through such an absurd scenario is if there were some unexamined rule that the entire 5000 had to be "spent" all at once or not at all. No family would behave this way, yet this is how we run our nation, and this is how we just treated nearly a trillion dollars!

The normal way to proceed is. We've got $5000 and we need $650 to fix the roof. We all agree on that right? Good, let's do that, but while we're at it, we need $120 to hire a guy for the yard. The block association's patience is wearing mighty thin. The roof might be a shoo in as a family decision, instant agreement. The grass might need a little debate. Different opinions, but it can be talked out quickly and easily enough, especially as pending eviction looms.

The same pattern could have been done with stimulus money. The absolute emergencies can be worked out, agreed upon quickly, and instantly be acted upon. De-freeze credit and lending, tax relief for small businesses etc. As emergency measures are applied, economic developments follow, and expenditure plans might change to meet the new circumstances.

This simple shift in assumption would allow the new administration immediately to sever life support to "how Washington does business," as was promised.

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