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The baby or the bathwater?

Posted: November 28, 2011 - 1:01am

The old adage, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” cautions us to avoid losing something we value when we discard something no longer of use. The supercommittee’s failure to develop a fiscal plan has made many of us want to toss out both the process and the people on the committee, but a more useful response might be to figure out what didn’t work and fix it. We need a fiscal plan.

The supercommittee’s proposed process was consistent with problem-solving techniques in general: bring people together, get disparate views on the table, compromise and develop a cohesive plan of action. We do this in family relationships all the time. When we sit down at the kitchen table to decide how much to save or spend, where or if we’ll go on vacation, or whether to buy a new car or stick with the old Subaru, we are the family ‘supercommittee’ without the TV cameras, suits and ties. We talk, we compromise and we move forward. The success or failure of this process is reliant on good communication and willingness to mutually compromise. The process is more complicated in the workplace or Congress but the same principles apply: communication, negotiation, mutual compromise and plan of action.

The supercommittee’s process is one used in our personal and professional lives often and successfully. So, should we keep the process and “throw out” the people on the supercommittee? Recently we’ve seen an increasingly polarized political arena in which our elected officials cannot or will not communicate effectively or compromise for our collective benefit. Did the supercommittee dig in their heels and fail to act at our expense to avoid compromising hardline views that will get them re-elected? (Where else could some of these folks command the $174,000 or more a year plus health benefits and pension they earn in Congress?) Is this aberrant behavior, or are we getting what we asked (and voted) for? Are we responsible for this outcome as a function of who we elected to these positions?

Americans have historically embraced the view that we are fiercely independent pioneers forging a nation through individual effort, uncompromising adherence to principles, and the sheer will to be bigger and better. Our image of gun totin’, boot strappin’ mavericks fighting for their land and rights is embodied in Marlboro commercials, old westerns and some political campaigns. But in his book “Community and the Politics of Place,” former Missoula mayor Daniel Kemmis suggests that the reality, then and now, is the polar opposite of that myth. A sense of community and finding enough middle ground to facilitate cooperation were crucial elements to our nation building. Barns were raised and fields harvested through cooperative efforts. Philosophically different neighbors set those views aside and helped each other through bad weather and bad luck because they knew that what goes around comes around. Most of us — even in Alaska — are not even remotely “independent.” We wait for the next barge or plane load of food, gas, clothing or PFD checks. But living in small Alaskan communities, we likely have recent experience with pooling resources and helping a neighbor, even one we might not invite over for dinner. It’s not just survival — it’s a sense of community and that we’re all in this together.

For the benefit of our national ‘community,’ the supercommittee could and should have negotiated a compromise in which we minimize services we can no longer afford and pay more taxes than we’d like. Obviously, the devil’s in the details (what gets cut, who gets taxed) but this very scenario is being acted out in boardrooms and kitchen tables across the nation.

During the next election, we should consider history as we frame the future by voting for people who have the capacity to represent our increasingly global community. No more mavericks — we need people who possess and value the ability to communicate, negotiate and compromise for our collective good will. Maybe we don’t need to wait until the next election. We could start today by contacting members of Congress and asking them to get back to the table, do the job we’re paying them to do and negotiate a plan.

• Craig has lived in the community of Juneau for almost 30 years and highly recommends Daniel Kemmis’s book “Community and the Politics of Place.”

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