March 22, 2010
Obamacare's Achilles HeelBy Bruce Phillips
There is an important lesson to be learned about Obamacare, which passed the House last night. It was brought to national attention on February 7th, when President Obama sat down for a Super Bowl interview with Katie Couric. Among the many surprising things he said was this:
Translation: "There's a rational solution that would not require all this messy politics."
Having spent the better part of a decade as a management consultant, I recognized immediately that this view violates the cardinal rule of effective solutions. Here's how.
We often talked with our clients about the way a solution to their problem would be developed and implemented. We had experienced widespread misunderstanding as to both the key components of a solution and the concerns that must be addressed to ensure successful implementation. So we developed effective shorthand to deal with this important issue.
First, we would draw a graphic like the following.
The final solution must lie in the intersection of these three components, meeting all three key components of successful solutions.
But as this was not widely understood or appreciated, we would ask the chief client this question: "If in the course of developing an on-time and under-budget solution to your company's problem we needed to de-emphasize one of these three components, which one would you prefer we select?"
The answer was almost always Political or Emotional. It was virtually never Rational. Can you hear President Obama giving the same answer above? And therein lies the Achilles Heel.
To problems in this world, there are many rational solutions. Complex modern issues have extensive "moving parts," all of which need attention. With the recognition that there exist an endless number of potential workable solutions, the idea that there is one and only one right one appears increasingly misguided. So, too, of course, is the idea that you could antiseptically analyze a problem and determine the right solution.
But whatever rational solution is ultimately selected, it will work only if the emotional and political needs of the organization are met. Humans will not cooperate in any solution to their problems if the solution itself creates or exacerbates emotional or political problems.
This brings to mind an old business school adage. "Venture capitalists would rather put their money behind a grade-B idea managed by a grade-A person than the other way around." This is just another way of saying that it's the process, the human component, that makes great events great.
And hence the Achilles Heel of Obamacare and the insight provided by his otherwise-offhand comments to Katie Couric. Obama clearly prefers the rational solution, and so much so that dealing with the political or emotional components is viewed as at best a necessary evil. To Obama, all this negotiating is wasted time.
This is firmly in the tradition of one strain of liberalism -- the idea that successful solutions can be dictated from above. These liberals believe that there is a ruling elite who is, or at least should be, tasked with taking care of the general populace. It is the general populace that is, according to the liberal mindset, incapable of assessing and correctly deciding issues on its own.
To the extent that liberalism ever strays off the "rational reservation," it is to wallow in the comforting swamps of emotion. "Feeling" that something is the right thing to do is enough. Compassion can justify any program. If it was intended to do good, it matters little what the actual outcome might be.
And so we deal with this bipolar aspect of liberalism. It is either rational in a way that does not understand or respect the complex reality of the human condition...or it is often driven by an emotional commitment that trumps serious analysis. It's a toxic mix.
And what will this misguided and easily avoided approach buy us? There will be legal challenges. There will be electoral reversals. There will be plummeting poll numbers. And there will be legislative battles over every bill that even remotely touches on this issue. It will be Roe v. Wade all over again -- a decision imposed on the American people which goes against their very closely held idea as to how these kinds of issues should be resolved.
As messy as it may seem to our coolly hyper-rational president, these immense issues need organic solutions -- solutions that grow up through trial and error. This doesn't mean that government has no role to play in encouraging and refereeing the game as it is played. But government simply cannot replace the game. Note that I do not say "should not." It's "cannot."
This is an amateur error. It has the potential to cause our body politic grief for decades. It didn't have to be this way.
Bruce Phillips is a financial advisor and recovering management consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.