Former Sen. Alan Simpson likes to say that if you can’t learn to compromise on issues without compromising yourself, you should not be in Congress, be in business or get married. It is amazing how many people violate that rule, but especially in Congress and especially among the Tea Party types, where calling someone a “deal maker” is now the ultimate put down. What makes it crazier is that in American education, innovation and commerce today, “collaboration” is being taught and rewarded as the best way to do anything big, important and complex. Indeed, in Silicon Valley, a “collaborator” means someone with whom you’re building something great. In D.C., it means someone committing political treason by working with the other party. And that is why Silicon Valley is now the turbo-engine of our economy and D.C. is the dead hand.
To be sure, in politics compromise is not a virtue in and of itself. There are questions of true principle — civil rights, for instance — where compromise might kill the principled choice. But there has been an inflation of “principles” lately that is inhibiting compromise. A certain tax rate or retirement age is not a principle. It’s an interest that needs to be balanced against others. Today, we would be best served in meeting our biggest challenges by adopting a hybrid of the best ideas of left and right — and the fact that we can’t is sapping our strength.
For instance, on the debt/spending issue, Congress should be borrowing money at these unusually low rates to invest in a 10-year upgrade of our crumbling infrastructure (roads, bridges, telecom, ports, airports and rail lines) and in a huge funding increase for our national laboratories, research universities and institutes of health, which are the gardens for so many startups. Together, such an investment would stimulate sustained employment, innovation and the wealth creation to pay for it.
But this near-term investment should be paired with long-term entitlement reductions, defense cuts and tax reform that would be phased in gradually as the economy improves, so we do not add to the already heavy fiscal burden on our children, deprive them of future investment resources or leave our economy vulnerable to unforeseen shocks, future recessions or the stresses that are sure to come when all the baby boomers retire. President Barack Obama has favored such a hybrid, but it was shot down by the Tea Party wing, before we could see if he could really sell it to his base.
We should exploit our new natural gas bounty, but only by pairing it with the highest environmental extraction rules and a national, steadily rising, renewable energy portfolio standard that would ensure that natural gas replaces coal — not solar, wind or other renewables. That way shale gas becomes a bridge to a cleaner energy future, not just an addiction to a less dirty, climate-destabilizing fossil fuel.
In some cities, teachers’ unions really are holding up education reform. But we need to stop blaming teachers alone. We also have a parent problem: parents who do not take an interest in their children’s schooling or set high standards. And we have a student problem: students who do not understand the connection between their skills and their life opportunities and are unwilling to work to today’s global standards. Reform requires a hybrid of both teacher reform and a sustained — not just one speech — national campaign to challenge parents and create a culture of respect and excitement for learning. Obama has failed to use his unique bully pulpit to lead such a campaign.
Finally, the merger of globalization and the information-technology revolution has shrunk the basis of the old middle class — the high-wage, middle-skilled job. Increasingly, there are only high-wage, high-skilled jobs. This merger of globalization and IT has put capitalism — and its core engine of creative destruction — on steroids. That’s why Republicans are wrong when they oppose raising minimum wages and expanding national health care. These kinds of social safety nets make the free market possible; otherwise people won’t put up with creative destruction on steroids.
But it is capitalism, startups, risk-taking and entrepreneurship that make these safety nets affordable, which is why we need more tax incentives for startups, the substitutions of carbon taxes for payroll and corporate taxes, and more cuts to regulations that burden business. Unfortunately, promotion of risk-taking and risk-takers is disappearing from the Democratic Party agenda. Its energy and excitement is focused much more today on wealth redistribution than wealth creation. On immigration, Senate Democrats and Republicans forged a sensible hybrid solution, but Tea Partiers in the House are blocking it.
These hybrid solutions are not how to split the difference. They’re how to make a difference. But they only get forged if Republican leaders take on the Tea Party — which transformed the GOP into a far-right party, uninterested in governing — and remake the GOP into a center-right party again. If that happened, I’m certain that a second-term Obama, who is much more center-left than the ridiculous GOP caricatures, would meet them in the middle. Absent that, we’re going to drift, unable to address effectively any of our biggest challenges or opportunities.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.