Without a clear enemy to unify us, like the Soviet Union or the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, America is at war with itself. The result: our nation lacks the national consensus needed to choose priorities and make tough decisions – or even dump bad laws based on good intentions.
Part of our challenge is accepting a simple fact about Americans who disagree with our view: they are not evil. At our core, Americans are pretty much the same: patriotic, proud and passionate that our nation is special. Almost all Americans want a better life for their children. So, disagreements over how best to accomplish that goal shouldn’t tear us apart.
Our friends in the Tea Party want a better America by controlling spending. Our union friends want good American jobs with good pay. Our friends who are social conservatives believe traditional values are the best way to strengthen the nation. Our friends who are socially liberal believe that all Americans should be able to live the American Dream in whatever way they want.
Our national problem is not that Americans, especially those in politics, do not have good intentions. They do, albeit with different priorities. What unites us is so much greater than what divides us. But Washington politics, fueled by the breathless and relentless 24-hour news cycle, unconstrained by any serious outside threat to our safety and security, magnifies our differences.
If we can accept that basic premise, that Americans have good intentions and want the best for their country, then we can move beyond petty partisan bickering and instead do what businesses do, and begin to require a minimum level of accountability from our legislators. But, we do the opposite. We rarely if ever hold legislators accountable for the outcomes generated by the bills they pass; instead we decide on whether we like them because they meant well.
Want some examples?
Barney Frank had good intentions in encouraging affordable housing and mortgages for everyone via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Yet these good intentions helped cause a devastating world economic recession, harm to the U.S. reputation and great individual losses and hardships. But Frank and other legislators with similar agendas had zero accountability for their actions.
The “War on Drugs” has cost billions of dollars and put millions of Americans into jail but has been a total failure in eliminating illegal drugs. We never tied the funding to any results and we don’t stop the program despite the horrific cost and human tragedy.
Securities law allows trial lawyers to sue public companies in shareholder lawsuits with the result being the U.S. is fast becoming an undesirable place for public companies. The lawsuits cost American companies $64.4 billion over the last decade with some 35 percent of the money going to voracious trial attorneys. This foolish situation, like many other class action laws, produces no positive societal result, as the legislation was never tied to results. Similarly, laws like Sarbanes-Oxley produce little positive result and turn our CEOs into risk-adverse functionaries more focused on legal compliance than in taking risks necessary to be strong and growing world-wide competitors.
Laws barring age discrimination have made it almost impossible to move incompetent older people out of jobs, especially in some jobs like teaching. This imposes huge costs on colleges and other affected institutions and serves as a bottleneck leading to high unemployment and lack of opportunity for many youth.
The list of well-intended laws governing education, product liability, unionization, drug criminalization, copyright infringement, patent liability and so many other areas is quite long. We need to change the national dialogue so we focus on the results and costs of these laws. We can start by accepting the good intentions of those on both sides, and agreeing that all legislation should sunset if specific and measurable results are not met.
I think most Americans would agree our system is not working. Our leaders are not confronting our biggest problems. They are not factual, not strategic and they are threatening our future. Unless we can change our process, we will continue to face debt ceiling emergencies, a lack of budgeting, and bills over 2,000 pages that no one can understand all in the name of a political game that’s more about positioning and power than finding real solutions to our problems.
Our citizenship is a gift we have spoiled by our failure and our squabbles. It’s time we became our parents and work together for our children’s future.