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Elmo’s Fiscal Policy Solution: Playdates!

December 5th, 2011 . by economistmom


(video from Mediaite.com)

Back in October, CNN’s Erin Burnett interviewed Sesame Street’s Elmo, getting his advice on how Congress might actually stop bickering and get their work done. (CNN replayed this interview recently following the super committee’s disappointing failure.) From the CNN transcript of the original airing:

ERIN BURNETT, HOST, CNN’S “ERIN BURNETT’S OUTFRONT”: Elmo, you could solve the world’s problem right now.

ELMO: Really? How?

BURNETT: OK. So, in Washington –

ELMO: Yes?

BURNETT: — everybody hates each other. Nobody will do anything together.

ELMO: Really?

BURNETT: And it’s hurting America. How do you fix it, Elmo?

ELMO: Play dates.

BURNETT: Play dates?

ELMO: Yes, everybody has play dates.

BURNETT: Like put a Democrat and Republican play date?

ELMO: Play dates.

BURNETT: Harry Reid, John Boehner, play dates?

ELMO: Yes, play dates. And everybody brings their own food.

BURNETT: OK. Yes.

ELMO: And they have to sing songs.

BURNETT: I think that might solve it. It’s better than anything we tried so far, Elmo.

This reminds me of the Concord Coalition’s new “Two by Two” initiative, where–as Bob Bixby explained, also back in October (anticipating, like Elmo, that the super committee in the end would not play so well together):

Just as they did for the State of the Union Address, members of Congress should pair up. They should join together in “two-by-two” fiscal forums in which they present agreed-upon facts and engage with each others’ constituents about policy options. Public engagement is of little value if it just means listening to people who already agree with you…

Any number of formats could work so long as the goal is to broaden understanding of the issues and seek consensus solutions – and not to score a partisan “victory.”

A good example was set earlier this year by Senators Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who held joint forums in Richmond and Atlanta. And this is just one model. Over the past six years, The Concord Coalition has brought together analysts and political leaders of diverse perspectives on our “Fiscal Wake-Up” and “Fiscal Solutions” tours.

Audiences across the country have been very receptive. They often express the wish that their political leaders would talk about the issues with the same appreciation of each other’s point of view. More importantly, audience members begin to accept the need for compromise.

The public is hungry for a nonpartisan dialogue on such big issues as the long-term fiscal challenges, and elected leaders need political cover to “do the right thing.” Two-by-two forums fit both needs. Indeed, if President Obama and Speaker Boehner had made their case for a “grand bargain” to the American people instead of vetting it with other party leaders, they surely would have found a more receptive audience.

In other words, playdates with “parallel playing” are not enough. You have to communicate and engage with your playmate–find out what toys and games he likes and what he does not, reconcile those preferences with yours, and find ways to play together that make both of you happy. As all parents and preschool teachers know, moving on from the parallel playing mode takes some maturity–getting beyond the “terrible twos” actually. We’ve been talking about the need for “adult conversation,” but maybe we can set the bar even lower for starters and just try to get past the temper tantrums!

4 Responses to “Elmo’s Fiscal Policy Solution: Playdates!”

  1. comment number 1 by: AMTbuff

    As Jim Glass has noted, the voters prefer getting something for nothing. Tax cuts, new spending, or both, all using money borrowed from future generations. Where is the constituency for stopping the borrowing and starting to pay money back? I don’t see it.

    You might call this a lack of leadership. But consider your history. Winston Churchill inspired the British to hold firm against Germany. That was after the war started. Years before, Churchill had exercised the same leadership, warning of the gathering storm. What did the voters do? THEY REJECTED HIM!

    No one can lead the voters to a accept painful solutions until the voters admit that there is a problem. It’s step one of recovery. This will not happen until the bond buyers go on strike a la Greece.

  2. comment number 2 by: Patrick R. Sullivan

    AMTbuff, is correct, and Econ Mom is living in a fantasy world. Bickering is what politicians do, because that’s what plays well to the constituencies that matter to each politician.

    That won’t change until enough voters are ready to be grown-ups and accept that politics won’t solve problems. Columns like this one (and several others) make the situation worse (at least to a small degree) be encouraging readers to think it’s the politicians fault.

  3. comment number 3 by: Brooks

    I’ll chime in with my two cents of cynicism.

    The problem is that self-serving politicians are behaving rationally (or at least trying). Their dominant priority is maximizing chances of re-election, power and status, and the best interest of the people is very much secondary, as is any interest in compromise as a positive aspect of a republic.

    So the problem isn’t a lack of understanding of opposing arguments regarding optimal policy, or lack of consideration or appreciation of diversity of priorities among the people, problems that perhaps could be mitigated by members of opposing “sides” spending some “quality time” together.

    And although I think there may be a small bit to the idea that get-togethers might decrease the tendency of politicians to demonize the other side with hyperbolic rhetoric that makes compromise more difficult, I emphasize small bit.

    The only possible benefit of such get-togethers would be if they led to a greater appreciation of the limits to how far the other side will go, meaning a more realistic sense what policies are achievable (how close to one’s ideal), and if there are cases in which that enables them to avoid poorly chosen games of chicken when one would prefer (i.e, one sees his political self-interest as better served by) greater compromise rather than no deal. But my guess is that such get-togethers wouldn’t add much to each side’s estimation of the other side’s collective limits.

    ok, one other possible benefit could be that some new, useful ideas could emerge, including means of compromise, simply by virtue of having more minds working the problems. Of course, there’s also the chance that new, bad ideas could emerge — ideas that give both sides political cover for continued fiscal irresponsibility to enhance re-election chances of members of Congress on both sides generally.

    So I don’t see much benefit to these “play dates”.

  4. comment number 4 by: Brooks

    As follow-up, I want to distinguish my view of such “play dates” from the kinds of forums provided by Concord. I think the latter are useful and important, because they have the potential to affect the political calculus in the minds of politicians — in particular raising the political cost to them of continued fiscal irresponsibility (and decreasing the cost of fiscal responsibility by providing some cover) relative to the cost of supporting the imposition of sacrifices and the cost of compromise vs. politically ideal policies for each.