In the Nation's Interest

Why We Fight

Pardon me for invoking the classic Frank Capra film series that gave visual form to the dedication shown by our “greatest generation” almost three-quarters of a century ago.  I mean no disrespect for the supreme sacrifices made by many of our generations’ parents and grandparents.  But I do see at least a conceptual similarity between the question answered by Capra and a question that many might ask about CED:  Why are we engaged today in delivering “business-led research in the nation’s interest?”

The provocation for these thoughts came from remarks in a very recent meeting of CED’s Health Care Reform Subcommittee.  Many CED members took part and provided valuable insights.  But two particular comments, coming from John Castellani and Lenny Mendonca, focused on a truly fundamental question:  With Washington such a wasteland in gridlock – with prospects for constructive action almost universally believed to be nil – why are we tilting at the windmill of improving the health care system?

And this same question could be asked all across our research agenda, not just about health care.  So let me talk in the broadest terms about why we believe that CED’s mission is truly vital in this new, more cynical age.

It is an undeniable fact that cynicism is a molecular component of the air we breathe here in the District of Columbia.

There are differences of opinion about how many would approach crucial issues confronting our nation – the public debt burden, the cost and quality of health care, our lagging educational achievement, our environment and climate.  But with the agreement at least that these issues are crucial, one might think that our elected policymakers would seek to engage and resolve their differences.  But no; the more crucial the issue, the surer the odds that action is inconceivable.  Our “leaders” would rather store such problems – to use them to energize their political bases in a future election – than solve them.  And sadly, these truly critical problems do not store well.  Our debt compounds itself.  Our lagging generations of students queue up, one after another, in ever-lengthening lines of frustrated job seekers.  And so on.  The most-savvy Washington watchers observe these worsening patterns and hold emphatically that it is smart to be cynical.

True, you do not need to work for long in Washington before you hear a conversation between two policy gurus in which one sets forth a scheme to deal with a major problem which the other promptly dismisses as “politically impossible,” after which the second expert puts forth his plan, which is immediately dismissed by the first as “politically impossible.”  It sounds fruitless, but sooner or later one of these impossible dreams has got to come true.  We cannot go on forever with an exploding debt; our world economic leadership will not survive endless educational underperformance.  If there were a policy slam-dunk in one of these areas, it would have been enacted by now.

So what to do?  We at CED believe that it is precisely at these times, when so many disillusioned citizens turn and walk away, that careful thought and bipartisan engagement are most needed.

The kind of thinking we do can prove essential in two broad scenarios.  First, heaven forbid, a crisis can arise.  Policymakers can act in an ill-considered but seemingly unavoidable panic.  But alternatively, they can reach onto the shelf for just the kind of careful contingency planning that they really need.  If that thinking was built from a non-partisan perspective, it can stand a chance of achieving consensus.  And if it has sound business reasoning behind it, it can have even greater potential of success across the aisle.  Perhaps the worst of unintended consequences can be avoided, even in an emergency.

Alternatively, sound ideas can attract the political leadership to head off a crisis.  Yes, our truly critical issues are, to use a polite term, “mature.”  But elected policymakers have exerted leadership before.  Some Washington watchers today sense some forward momentum on second-tier questions.  The end of a presidency can be a time to seek accomplishment, rather than to hoard ammunition for the next election.  Sound thought leadership can mark the way to the high road.

Just as we on the CED staff are gratified by the engagement and support of our members, we know that the effort sometimes may seem futile.  But think of your participation not as consumption, yielding immediate gratification (though we on the staff hope that the intellectual exercise and the collaboration with your fellow members are truly gratifying).  Think of it rather as investment, potentially giving us the greater prosperity and society that we seek somewhere down the road.  Yes, there will be “dry holes” among your investments.  Success in Washington is measured on the scale of a batting average, not a fielding percentage.  But some of those apparent dry holes may yield big payoffs on the second or third try.  And good ideas can pull the consensus in the right direction, even if they are never fully realized.

So thank you for your support of all of our policy projects, including our health care reform project this year – and back in 2007.  And thank you in advance for your engagement in all of our policy projects to come.  We believe that the effort is essential for the future of our country, and that you will see your reward in the fullness of time.

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