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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Focus on Solving Present Problems

Republican conservatives have stolen the focus of national debate.  Rather than solving immediate problems like unemployment and loss of housing, Congress -- and the White House -- are being held hostage to a manufactured problem: that of deficit spending and debt ceiling.  This is not unusual;  conservatives have often shifted the focus of national debate to the subject of deficit spending to avoid dealing with the real issues that confront the citizenry of this country. 

They did it in the 1940s when FDR tried to cap wages for the rich, and to increase the amount of taxes the rich had to pay in order to help pay for the War effort.  They did it again in the 1960s when LBJ was attempting to balance “Guns and Butter” trying to fight a war and forge a Great Society to address the needs of the poor and dispossessed as well as the inequities that existed between the races.  The battle over the deficit, culminating in a surcharge and spending cuts in 1968, ended Johnson’s efforts to build new social programs.  Ronald Reagan used the issue of deficit spending to rise to power, as did the congressional Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections.  And, of course, most recently, Republicans (and the Tea Partiers) have used dire warnings about deficits to curtail President Obama’s progressive agenda.  The terrible irony is, of course, that Republicans -- like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush -- have a terrible record when it comes to balancing the budget!

One can address this tendency of Republican conservatives to derail progressive agendas by their dire predictions and warnings about deficit spending, in several ways.  One would be to point out that FDR learned from his 1937-38 acceptance of reducing the deficit as important to righting the Depression economy that not only didn’t it work, it created chaos.  FDR’s reversal to large deficit spending in order to stimulate jobs and housing and individual welfare, along with his early pre-war and war years spending (and his insistence on higher taxes, particularly on the rich) helped to create a robust economic recovery as well as a successful war effort, besides creating a broadly prosperous middle class.     

But I want to go in an entirely different direction and pick up a thread of thought that I have mentioned before.  Both Republicans and Democrats tend to want to focus their attention on ideology rather than on problems to be solved.  And, unfortunately, they often do this by focusing attention on predictions of future consequences rather than on the necessity of present-day problem-solving.  They also have a recurring tendency to “kick the can down the road” so they can avoid making decisions that are needed in the present.

It is my contention that the Congress and the White House need to devote themselves to living “in the present” rather than trying to live in the future.  One caveat to this opinion: laying the groundwork for future problem-solving while solving present-day problems is not the same as trying to predict the future and then trying to resolve those predicated problems.

What do I advocate?  I suggest that we concentrate our efforts on solving problems confronting us right now, with a problem-solving method.  Although I am no expert in this realm, I have had training and experience in the matter, which is probably more than can be said for the majority of members of Congress and the Executive branch.

So, putting aside the issue of deficit spending for the moment, what is the major problem that the American people have identified in most polls?  This is really the first step in problem-solving: to identify the problem(s) to be solved.  Sometimes this requires research into what people are saying, or probative questioning that helps identify and  narrow the problem.  In some cases, a problem needing to be addressed is quite clear.  I would venture to say, in the present case, that it is JOBs.  Many would say that the problem is that “there are no jobs,” or that they “can’t find a job,” or that “jobs are scarce,” or that “no one is hiring.”   Certainly we can take from this that the jobs problem is multi-faceted, so that in order to deal with the issue of jobs, we must define the problems more carefully.

That is the second major step of problem-solving: defining the problem(s) in a precise manner in order to propose precise solutions that speak to the exact problem rather than to something else (Congress has a penchant for dealing with diversionary or secondary problems, although some special Commissions have approached a more exact standard).

Let’s take a stab at defining one of the problems (all stats are made-up): 
“People can’t find jobs in the electronics field because they need training.” Too general.

“It is estimated that 2.3 million people cannot find jobs in electronics because they are lacking in the requisite skills.”  Not precise enough.

“One million people in the New England states cannot find jobs in the electronics industry because they lack skills in computer programming, electronics manufacture, or use of software programs.” Probably much better: it quantifies the problem, specifies a location, and identifies the skills needed.  Someone more versed in this problem might be able to be more specific, but hopefully you get the idea.

At this point, or even before this point while trying to clarify the problem, the problem-solvers may need to research the problem further by doing some fact-finding.  Congress and Executive advisers could be very helpful in this step, but so can many other experts and ordinary citizens.  During this step, breaking a larger problem into smaller, more precise, problems may become necessary.

Once a problem to be addressed is clearly defined, the next step is to: generate as many potential solutions as possible.   (By the way, here is where the myriad of committees in Congress could be most useful - gathering the potential solutions to a specific problem from experts and ordinary citizens).  The key to this step is to avoid premature judgments of the efficacy of any proposed solution, but to allow as much freedom of expression as possible.  The winnowing occurs later.  Ways of generating solution ideas ranges from brain-storming to surveying people’s opinions.  Another possibility is to try to view the problem from other perspectives than one’s own.

Here are a few possible (partial) solutions just to illustrate this step:

-Send a block grant to the identified states to assist in job training in electronics
-Get electronics manufacturers to offer training sessions to interested citizens
-Have specific electronics companies offer internships
-Arrange government contracts with private trainers to offer computer training and use of software
-Expand use of community colleges to teach computer skills
-Identify government and social service agencies where citizen volunteers can be trained in computer skills
-Use AmeriCorps and Teacher Corps members to train cadres of people in local communities in computer skills

This list, of course, could go on and on as possible solutions are solicited.  Notice that no one suggestion is the “ideal” solution.  As one brainstorms with a group, one discovers many facets that were previously unknown or hidden; in fact, some seemingly impractical or na├»ve solutions may trigger good ones!  The power of this step is incalculable, and leads one to the conclusion that it is often not a good idea to seek one solution to a problem, but to concentrate one’s efforts in several directions. 

If Congress were to take such an approach as its modus operandi, there might need to be a limited time frame proposed for such “solution-gathering”.  Another caveat:  Congress already does some of this solution-gathering through committee hearings on proposed bills and on budget authorizations and appropriations.  But too often, the solutions have already been proposed and they are seeking agreement, but are so committed to an ideology that any conflicting advice is quickly dismissed as irrelevant.  That is why, too often, only witnesses sympathetic to the majority view are called to appear; others are simply ignored.  

The final step in this definition of the problem and possible solutions is: to choose (and evaluate) the most viable alternatives/solutions.  Not an easy task because all kinds of obstacles can present themselves in the form of prejudices, ignorance, lack of experience, and ideologies.  So this is the most likely place for some ground rules and for civil debate, and for a willingness to see the good in proposals that may not conform entirely to one’s pre-conceived notions! 

Some groups, at this point, study the meaning of the word “consensus” (a process by which a group consents to a proposal even though there may still be some individual dissent or concern. “Compromise” may be a factor in this but there is more likely the sense that acceptance is based on a greater good that may be achieved).  Diversion from the topic, name-calling, ideological rants, irrationalities, narcissism, blocking, unsubstantiated facts or opinions, and other negative behaviors are ruled out-of-bounds so that the group can proceed with its task of choosing viable alternatives.

Such choice can be done in more than one way and often the group chooses its own process.  Three possible procedures: eliminate those solutions that are glaringly unworkable and then assign a ranking to the rest; or, rank all solutions by voting; or, rank only those items the group feels are most workable.  Groups or committees often employ a combination of procedures to get the best results.

Some other criteria:
-it is important that solutions chosen speak directly to the defined problem
-it is necessary that each chosen solution be viable and doable
-it may be helpful to seek outside expert advice when a particular proposal needs greater definition or there is a need to resolve deep conflicts
-it is requisite that every chosen solution be backed-up with sound research and argument and with group consensus; every member of the group should be able to defend the choices, even though some reservations may still be held.  Minority opinion and concerns should always be reported in order to protect the integrity of the process and the outcomes of the debates/choices.

Therefore, some evaluation of the top ideas is necessary at this point to test whether each is good enough to consider using.  Will it offer a big-enough benefit?  Where could things go wrong - are there too many high risks?  What will be the consequences of implementing a particular chosen solution?  What pressures will be brought against it; can they be addressed?  Is it worth implementing from a financial perspective?  Some groups use a testing or demonstration procedure here so that one or more solutions can be “tried out” in a limited way before full implementation.

Now that the group or committee has gone through this problem-solving process, their work is not done.  The most difficult process is yet to come, and that is: planning for implementation.  More on that in a future Blog, but right now a few points need to be made in conclusion:

-this is a technique that can be taught and learned; even for members of Congress!
-Unfortunately, I cannot find much of this kind of training being done (there is one small contract let by the Labor Department for such training)
-this is a technique that is a continuous circle not a straight-line process; once a solution is implemented, a cycle of evaluation and improvement must kick-in; something much needed in government
-this problem-solving method has the potential to change the way Congress and the Executive branch operate.
- why do we tolerate anything less from those who govern?