The Tyranny of “Or”

This may sound like an unusual choice of titles, but it lets me focus on how our society and leaders have tended to frame issues in an unhealthy way. The use or implied use of the word “or”  denotes a polarized view of topics which may be good for sound bytes, but is terrible for governance.

A few examples might be of help. The deficit or debt reduction discussions tend to be framed in an increase in tax revenue “or” a reduction in spending. The more astute view is we need both as the math problem cannot be solved with one or the other irrespective of the opinions of Grover Norquist. President Bush’s Treasury Secretary was actually asked to resign after he voiced concerns over the tax cuts passed early in the century noting his worry over future deficits. Note, these are the same tax cuts Warren Buffett argued against and we are arguing over extending today.

Newt Gingrich wants to talk to African-Americans about the offer of paychecks “or” food stamps. There are two points that are important. The majority of people on food stamps are employed, they are just under-employed, so it is not a matter of getting a paycheck or food stamps. The other point is the majority of people on food stamps are not African-American, so there is an implied opinion of either you are white and employed or African-American and not, an opinion which could be viewed as racist.

In my volunteer work with homeless families and individuals, I have observed and the data would support, a significant number of homeless people are employed. The economy has heightened the unemployed numbers as the number of jobs have lessened, but the people in need are employable if not employed. There are exceptions to this observation, but there are many who find it hard to believe that if you have a job you can still lose your home.

The debate on regulations is an interesting one as well. The debate is framed in an “either/or” manner. Yet, as I have noted in earlier posts, we need regulation, but need to be less bureaucratic in their governance and more enabling. One of the reasons Erskine Bowles was asked to be President Clinton’s Chief of Staff is during his tenure overseeing the Small Business Bureau, he reduced the small business application from 42 pages to one. This streamlined the process immensely.

So, the questions we need to be asking are not should we have regulations, but how can we develop common sense regulations that provide the right level of governance. When you think of this issue, ask yourself how many people would buy car insurance or buckle up if the states did not mandate these requirements?

Let me close with one more example. The energy debate is centered around using more fossil fuels or alternative energy sources. As noted in earlier posts, we need to do both, but we must focus more than we have on the alternative energy sources to make them scalable. And, while we explore all sources we need to frame the debate around the pros and cons now and tomorrow. So, it is OK to say we should do “both” when issues are framed in an “either/ or” polarized way.

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