Watching the budget battle play out these past few weeks (perhaps months and years) between Republicans and Democrats can only leave one feeling deep frustration and a sense that things will never truly change. Those emotions are not only accurate they are the clue to the true reason why deficits are soaring and budgets are not handled in a fiscally responsible way. Everyone deals with the budget as if it is a purely fact-based exercise and ignores the most powerful factor in the decision-making process—emotions. The emotion that no one wants to deal with in the budget process is cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is defined as “The state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.” Simply put, ask anyone and they would say the deficit needs to be reduced, the budget balanced and do it without cutting any of the services that I like or use. Is it any wonder why we are in the mess we are in? The problem is the complete lack of leadership from either party in addressing their own and the public’s dissonance around these tough issues; so instead of substantively addressing core issues, our political “leaders” are engaged in a power struggle to see who get can the most for their pet causes and take the most from their opponents.
To create long-term solutions leaders must engage the public in a sincere dialogue about our fiscal goals that are a reflection of our true values. The conversation that needs to take place in every community must happen in a way that engages people not at the surface of “I hate taxes and where are my government services when I want them,” rather the conversation needs to address what is most important to us and what are we all willing to contribute to create those opportunities as a community.
Among the core issues that need to be substantively addressed are the following:
- Do we believe that it is in our individual and collective interest to provide all citizens access to health care? At the core of the health care debate is this issue that has not been resolved as a fundamental precept of all policy. If we agree that we don’t want people dying the streets, etc. as a result of not being able to access health care then how best to provide health care to everyone can be discussed. As a result of not having agreement on this issue, there are many false suppositions about costs for a variety of groups that cannot afford conventional insurance or care that creep into our debate and policy that keep us from addressing fundamental issues.
- What responsibility do we have for our care as we age? What is the government and community responsibility? The supposition that the end of life for most people comes a few years after “retirement” at age 65 or 67 is passé. Not only does the idea of quitting work no longer fit most people’s lifestyle, financially and mentally, it doesn’t work as a policy to have the government foot the bills for endless care for decades. What does that mean for each person? For our families? Our communities? By fundamentally rethinking the best way to create vibrant, healthy lives for people in their sunset years we get move away from the fear impoverishment and develop a healthier and more sustainable approach.
- What is our social commitment to each other? At the heart of many budget debates is who gets what and who pays what. A vibrant education system that supplies a well-educated workforce, a well-functioning transportation system that allows commerce and communities to work, disaster relief, public safety, parks and recreation, arts all these things and more are the fabric of our lives and yet we often don’t appreciate the benefits we enjoy and too often feel the disdain for the “cost” that we pay. By bringing these experiences into alignment and acknowledging what we get and what we pay—better decisions and better feelings will emerge.
- What is our role in the world? Defense spending is the largest part of our budget and waging war is rarely questioned as raising people’s fears develops great public complacency. If the public were asked about the cost of waging war vis-à-vis the sacrifices it would mean for them at home, it would be a very different discussion. Is chasing down dictators throughout the world worth closing libraries, schools or hospitals? When is it worth it? By asking these questions before an incident arises, it is likely very different decisions would be made.
So how do we change the outcome of the current course of unending budget battles that will not get us to our goal of fiscal health? There are two options. Either we find a public leader who is willing to work these very tough issues through with the public so that we have clarity on our values and direction or the public becomes tired of the continuing cycle of failed policies and decides to fully participate in this process and elects people who will work with them to create it.
We are at a critical decision point in the history of our country. If we continue to cling to our cognitive dissonance and expect everyone else to solve the problem for us—we are headed for very difficult times. Or we can choose to become leaders ourselves, to work through our own conflicting beliefs around what we want and what we are willing to give and then to change our reality. The truth about cognitive dissonance is that while it is sometimes difficult to work through, it will not go away on its own. Now is the time to decide to it differently or each of us will become a part of creating a future we may not want to live in.