Saturday, January 19, 2008

For those of you who may not already know, “mincemeat” doesn’t have any beef, pork or other animal products in it.  (It’s sort of like “Grape Nuts.”  No grapes.  No nuts.  What’s up with that?)  Mincemeat is a pie filling made from fruit.  My mother used to make me a mincemeat pie now and then when I was a kid, but I can’t remember what it tasted like, and now I’m not supposed to eat desserts.  To tell you the truth, the few times I’m going to eat dessert despite my doctor’s advice, I’m not going to waste them on mincemeat.

“Mincemeat” is also a condition.  It’s what really good players or teams in any sport or profession make out of their less capable and less well prepared opponents.

I haven’t decided who I’m supporting for President.  Not yet, but one of the Democratic candidates likes to talk about how he’s going to change the way our government operates through a process which involves a great deal of compromise.  He’s apparently a very sensitive person, unquestionably very bright and a really excellent speaker, who is confident, perhaps to a fault, in his ability to bring divergent views together.  He believes in the power of compromise, and in his effectiveness as an instrument and center of convergence.  Admirable, and interesting, but I’m worried.

I’ve been compromising with my wife for a few decades now, and have more or less perfected the art.  What I’ve learned is that compromise usually means one of two things.  Either one or the other party gets his or her way, period.  The other person gets nothing, except maybe credit toward the outcome of a future decision of lesser importance to the other party.  Or, a choice is made which neither of us is really crazy about – which is why we don’t do that anymore.

In business, my experience has been only slightly different.  Sometimes, for example, you have a dispute over, let’s say, the number of a given item to order.  One of you wants to order more, the other less, and you agree on some amount that you both find acceptable.  Unfortunately, that’s not how it works when it comes to something really important.  In government, I’m talking about the kind of decision that affects people’s lives.

You work hard to figure out what you believe to be the best way to do something, to provide universal health care, for example, to solve the problem of illegal immigration, diminish the threat of terrorism, or resolve some urgent international crisis.  There are so many things, large and small, local, national and foreign that we need to accomplish.  Other people who count disagree with you, and then one two things is going to happen.  Either you agree to a true comprise, a middle ground that produces an inferior program, or you make deals to get your way now at the expense of giving someone else his way later – even if it’s not in the best interests of the people.  Usually it’s both.  Comprise tends to have two effects:  on the people who make the compromise, and then separately on the people who are supposed to benefit from the program, the quality and power of which has been compromised by the first group.  You modify the program and make special arrangements, concessions you regretted when you made them.  In no time at all you’ve made so many deals you need staff to keep track of who owes who what.  Is this the politics of change?  What it is, is the traditional, business as usual way to accomplish what passes for progress in our nation’s and state capitals.

If an executive, or anyone for that matter, has a really good idea, something that’s been carefully crafted for all the right reasons, he or she either needs to sell it, meaning convince others to support it, or make it happen by virtue of his or her authority.  Compromise may be part of that process, but it can’t be allowed to erode the effectiveness or correctness of our programs.

An inexperienced President, particularly one who goes into the job believing in the power of compromise, is going to be up against some serious, highly skilled players, and desperate to get things done, to live up to all those campaign promises and his own self-image as doer and master of change.  I smell mincemeat pie baking in the oven, and suspect that the professional politicians, business interests, and foreign governments will be having more than their fair shares of dessert, at our expense.

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