The Importance of Compromise

There was a time when we believed our taxes went into good things: school, public research, infrastructure.  Unfortunately, over time, we’re turning into scrooges who don’t want to put a single red cent into anything unless it personally benefits us.  After all, what’s my personal interest in making sure my fellow humans have health care, an education, maybe even food tonight?

A prime example of our cheapness (and its impact) is school lunch: at one point schools offered a healthy, balanced meal for lunch, but that was downgraded in the 1980s when ketchup became a vegetable.  It wasn’t good for our kids, but it cut costs and at least there was no carbonated sugar-water available to our kids.

But that wasn’t good enough: wouldn’t it be great if public schools were little capitalistic enterprises that paid for themselves, so we didn’t have to pay so much tax? And so, over time schools came to supplement tax income by installing vending machines that offer unhealthy alternatives to the traditional school lunch.  Potato chips and soda are high-profit items, ensuring our taxes stay low as our kids get fat eating junk for lunch.

Somewhere along the line, we lost sight of the idea of public good.  Maybe we know people that use their food stamp dollars to buy others food for cash, which they then squander.  Or maybe someone who is on disability, and really could do some work but doesn’t because then they’d put their assistance (which might be something critical, like Medicaid health care) in jeopardy.  Some may have never met anyone in these scenarios, but has heard through the news how allegedly prolific these problems are.

Waste incidents like these leave many of us jaded, angry at those that take advantage of social generosity.  Over time, we gave up on the idea that anything done for the good of us all can possibly work.  The only thing good for us, we say, is to pay less tax.

I can’t disagree that there are problems: pork barrel spending, civil servant unions pushing for wage increases while the rest of us are suffering hardship, and government programs that don’t encourage people to be self sufficient.

Nevertheless, we need to realize that the United States were built on compromise.  In the beginning there was slavery itself, as well as counting slaves as 3/5 of a person; and having two houses of government, one based on population and one with equal representation for each state. Compromise is essential in going forward, but unfortunately our news media has gradually shifted from objectively reporting to providing perspective infotainment.  I mostly hear my friends complaining about right-wing pundits like O’Really & Limbaugh, but I am aware that Olbermann & Stewart are corresponding opposites on the left.  The only difference is that the left seems a little more light-hearted, preferring cynical comedy to the crazed ranting of the right-wing shows.

My friend Jeanine Logan recently described “confirmation bias” as follows (I think she summarized the Wikipedia article):

"Confirmation bias... is a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses... People can reinforce their existing attitudes by selectively collecting new evidence, by interpreting evidence in a biased way or by selectively recalling information from memory. ... Biased search, interpretation and/or recall have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false)... and illusory correlation (when people perceive an association between two events that doesn't actually exist)." As you might expect, these errors in information processing are more likely to occur when the topic is emotionally charged or when it touches on a person's core beliefs - those which are part of the individual's self-definition.”

Through confirmation bias, as TV provides an increasing number of pundits with various positions, we find and favor the one that supports our position and dismiss those that challenge our beliefs.  As the behaviors and attitudes of TV become familiar, we emulate them, breaking down discourse among citizens; we refuse to debate rationally among each-other in preference of making snarky sound bite comments and dismissals.  Sure, I talk about the issues with other liberals, but it’s not like that moves us toward a consensus or a compromise.  Instead, we discuss how screwed up the right-wingers are, and how we just can’t make them understand why they’re wrong, especially in light of all the programming they watch with a skewed perspective.  You can’t have a proper argument when the media is has fortified the opposing party with misinformation, hyperbole, and distortions.  I’m sure the right-wingers complain the same of those leaning to the left and our preferred media.

This leaves us with a pervasive problem: as the media convinces the citizens that any kind of a compromise is a failure and unacceptable, we take those options away from politicians who know such things will be used against them in the next election.  In their refusal to compromise, we typically assign blame to the legislatures by labeling them as “dysfunctional government”, citing their inability to move forward on anything.  But how can they, when there is such little willingness to compromise?  After all, agreeing to a compromise would label a politician a waffler or a back-stabber who turns their back on their own constituents and promises.

Compromise isn’t just within Washington and Albany; it starts with us.  For a program to be successful, such as school lunches, we the people need to be willing to compromise.  I may not have kids, but if yours turns into a fat porker and ends up on disability with diabetes, that isn’t in my interest either.  Besides, if the schools are providing good lunches I would know your kid is being fed right once per day– because people getting food stamps or WIC don’t necessarily feed their children well either.

To achieve what’s good in the long term, we need to redefine what we want to be “public good done” instead of “reduced taxes”.  Or maybe, “public good per tax dollar”, recognizing that we only want government spending money if it’s a good value.  The problem here becomes a question of what’s good?  Where do we draw the line?  School lunch and education seem like no-brainers to me, but I know there are a few right-wing lunatics that think they should be privatized.  What about public parks and public-sponsored festivals?  Where do we meet in the middle?

I’m not sure where we draw that line, but wherever it is, it’ll be a compromise.  And until we are willing to negotiate, we aren’t going to move forward; doing so requires changes at several levels:

  • Negotiating requires understanding the opposing viewpoint.
  • This requires media that’s providing all sides of the argument, making the issue comprehensible but not oversimplifying it.
  • This requires we watch media that provides both sides with decent reporting, rather than preferring the one that tells us what we want to hear and ignores the complexities.

Until we accept our role in this problem, it’s not going to get fixed.