The Virtues of Compromise

Political extremism has usurped compromise.

This is unfortunate because in the absence of a universally accepted hierarchy of principles, the choice is: compromise forged in the crucible of Congress, or dictatorship by a superior person who thinks he knows what's best for us.

Those superior people can often be problematic -- as the darker episodes in human history reveal, extremism thrives in dictatorships where individuality is swallowed by the absolutist imperatives of the state.

But where freedom prevails, our individuality embroiders a rich tapestry of cultures woven together by the thread of compromise. Compromise encourages wider participation and engenders goodwill. By compromising, we strike a balance between competing interests and achieve a degree of cohesion in an otherwise pluralistic society.

Only rare circumstances, usually involving national security, warrant uncompromising steadfastness.

Ronald Reagan, for example, was sometimes derided by political shrinking violets for being uncompromising. Indeed, as he prepared to deliver his famous "Evil Empire" speech, several of his own advisors urged him to tone it down. Now it's emblematic of his courage in daring to win the Cold War.

Churchill and Roosevelt also faced perilous choices in a hot war. Recognizing that compromise would be perceived as weakness, they showed resoluteness in defeating the purveyors of infernal doom. These great leaders rebuffed considerations of a negotiated peace with Nazi officials, sticking instead to the principle of "unconditional surrender."

Such stark choices between good and evil are, fortunately, rare. Unless subjugation is the goal, compromise is essential when interacting with others. I wish President Obama was mature enough to understand this; I wish he cared less about dividing Republicans, and more about the future of our country.

In his attempt to score political points in the ongoing fiscal debates, Obama has already moved the goalposts more than once; even some liberal-leaning journalists have noticed. Now, he's threatening to take his ball and scurry home until the mid-term elections if he doesn't get his way. But I thought he wanted to play on a balanced field? Well, he got his tax increases in the first fiscal cliff fiasco; now it's time to compromise, it's time for some spending cuts.

Our economic options are sometimes convoluted; with so many variables, they are often unable to fit neatly into some abstract orthodoxy. Perhaps this is why President Truman famously summoned a one-armed economist. He was weary of the others saying: "On the one hand, this. On the other hand, that." Given their ambivalence, compromise seems prudent.

President Reagan taught us a lesson in determination and courage in defeating the evil empire; he also left a legacy of landmark bipartisan legislation. Even as he decisively pursued his "peace through strength" strategy, Reagan was more compromising when dealing with Democrat House Speaker Tip O'Neill. The two leaders represented ideologies as different as those that polarize our politicians today. They disagreed on everything from taxation to Medicare to military spending, yet these "Frenemies" were not can-kickers, and together they crafted important agreements in the cauldron of political compromise.

Political division and distrust pervades our public discourse. Republicans are reluctant to give up their vision of a low-tax America. Democrats would rather demagogue and divide, portraying granny being wheeled over the cliff by heartless Republicans, rather than face the imperative of reforming our entitlement programs. These positions are stark, but perhaps no thornier than the "third rail" of national politics that Reagan and O'Neil confronted in 1983. Their compromise resulted in passage of the Social Security Reform Act.

President Reagan later regretted that some of the tax increases that extended solvency of the Social Security trust fund were not offset by spending cuts. It's understandable that today's Republicans are leery of revenue generation now and spending cuts later. We just had about $620 billion of fiscal cliff revenue increases, let's not repeat history -- we need spending cuts now lest our national debt becomes an intractable national security nightmare. At that point, compromise may not be an option.

The overhyped, dreaded sequester is now law, but with a potential government shutdown and another debt ceiling standoff looming, there's still time to compromise to reduce our debt: On the one hand, means-testing on entitlements; on the other hand, removing some tax loopholes.

Ah yes, tax loopholes, those dastardly things were a focus on the last major simplification of the tax code -- the Tax Reform Act of 1986. That bipartisan bill was sponsored by House Democrat Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and was given impetus by President Reagan's Treasury Department. It's an example of how compromise yields benefit to all -- many ambidextrous (on the one hand, this; the other hand, that) economists assert that the removal of loopholes and the reduction of rates helped usher in a period of prolonged economic expansion.

Not everyone will be entirely thrilled with compromise because no one gets everything they want; but at least they get something. Conversely, stubbornly sticking to principles that are divorced from the reality of divided government will undermine stability and potentially wreak economic havoc. When conflicting viewpoints counterbalance, demagoguery whips up vengeful feuds that may push granny -- and the rest of us -- over the economic precipice.

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