Trade-off is not a Four Letter Word
Would you love some political honesty, or not?
The U.S. is in campaign season headed into midterm elections and the political narrative spinning is in full swing. One of my greatest frustrations with rhetoric and messaging from both parties is the imbedded dishonesty. All candidates talk about the big things they are going to do without ever mentioning what it will actually take to get those things done.
Climate change is a great example. Biden has shown important leadership, calling the issue a crisis and passing strong climate-related policies. However, in the same week he talks up his climate agenda he also declares his intention to strengthen and expand US meat production. The industrial meat complex is one of the leading contributors of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental damage. It is a legacy industry that, if we want a livable planet, must be fundamentally redesigned and scaled down. That, however, is a politically taboo subject and so the farce continues.
Another great example is taking place in my home state of Oregon. We have three candidates running for Governor – a Republican, a Democrat, and an Independent, all women. The mushrooming houselessness issue across the state is a hot topic with voters and all three candidates are claiming that they will stamp out houselessness. Not one of them however, is pointing out that to do so is going to necessarily mean increasing housing density even in wealthier neighborhoods. Those wealthier neighbors are the source of a lot of campaign donations so best not to raise any red flags there.
Candidates do this kabuki dance because they fear speaking of the trade-offs associated with proclaimed policies will cost them votes, and maybe even the offices they covet. Only we as voters can decide, and demonstrate, whether or not the fear is justified.
I, for one, would be very excited about a candidate who got real with us, who pointed out the depth of system change necessary to create a world that works better for everyone. I’d be energized by a candidate who spelled out some of the difficult changes and trade-offs we are all going to face if we are to successfully navigate the human predicament we’ve inherited and created.
The avoidance of speaking truth about essential trade-offs is a disservice on several levels. One, it perpetuates the façade that we can keep going with business as usual and still address the enormous problems facing society at this time; in other words, it contributes to an under-informed, underprepared populace. Two, if the electorate doesn’t have some idea of the difficult choices that must be made it is very difficult to build support for those choices once the elected person is in office.
Finally, such shallow political pandering robs us of chances to learn about, dream about, navigate the challenges in ways that might actually feel good. There is no question given the scale of challenges like climate change, increasing chasms between wealthy and poor, insufficient natural resources to meet rapacious consumption demands and the resulting global economic instability, that big changes are coming. What if we started designing rather than avoiding then being whiplashed by those changes?
What if in the process of scaling back and shutting down certain industries, we created pathways for people to find less dangerous, less brutal careers?
What if, in the quest to blot out houselessness, we actually designed communities in which neighbors knew one another, people needing help got it, and resources were more locally available to everyone?
What if in the process of honestly facing the fact that we cannot continue to consume Earth’s resources at the current pace, we wound up creating ways to step off the hamster-wheel of working jobs we don’t care about, racking up debt, and being bombarded by constant marketing?
I can envision and look forward to such transitions even if it means significant changes to my own comfort zone. After all, not all comfort zones are genuinely comfortable and not all trade-offs are sacrifices -- sometimes they are trade-ups.
I think the pervasive sense of powerlessness in US society is driven in part because we know major, disruptive changes are already underway but political leaders and wanna-be leaders are not honestly acknowledging what we’re really facing. In actuality that is an abdication of leadership.
I’m curious, dear reader, how do you think you’d react if a candidate for political office was really honest with you and admitted they couldn’t solve the problem and it was going to take major effort and trade-offs to do so? How would you react?
Do you buy the conventional wisdom (often an oxymoron in my opinion) that candidates will lose elections if they speak truthfully about the severity of the problems and the massive scale of change necessary to effectively solve them? I would genuinely love to know what you think.
As had been said before,
If the people lead, exert leadership ourselves, those we elect will follow.
In honor of these wild times we are living in and the very gift of being alive.
Inspirations and Resources
In case you hadn’t already heard, I wanted to share this news about the owner of the Patagonia company giving 100% of the company and future profits to the effort to address climate change and damage to our planet. He said, “Earth is now our only shareholder.” A powerful demonstration of leadership and a step toward the absolutely necessary redesign of Capitalism.
The White House has created a webpage to help people learn how they can get benefits and tax credits for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and electric vehicles through the recently passed climate bill. Here is the link.
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Great article! Honesty gets my vote.
I’m a retired engineer who has designed and managed computers and companies. I have learned that trade-offs (compromises, working across the aisle) are essential to sustainable manufactured, living, or social systems. I have found that winner-take-all extremists wave false flags of correct answers and ideal solutions to entice gullible followers. Moderates, their opposites, as pointed out by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer, respectfully negotiate with others to produce realistic and more sustainable results that benefit most people and foster continued social cohesiveness.
My Congressman is Jimmy Panetta, a Democrat. He works across the aisle whenever possible. When I asked about arrows in his back, he smiled: “yes, most of them are from people in my Party.”
I have learned that there are four ways to make and implement a decision: Might makes right, majority rules, consensus, and unanimity. Consensus solutions, the most sustainable, require negotiated trade-offs based on mutual respect.
I lived in Bend from 2006-2014. I recall an Indian-led movement producing successful redistribution of Deschutes River water rights through consensus. A recent book, The Dawn of Everything, includes persuasive evidence that Jefferson’s ideas about a government of the people, which he got from the French, were introduced to the French by an American Indian!
You attended one of my Bend lectures for OLLI. Afterward, you politely (and accurately) suggested that I should get to the point sooner. I’ve been working on that ever since.
I think for all of us used to the political world we grew up in...basically anyone older than about 12...it's an enduring habit to say "both sides do this thing that I am here to complain about." And it's a habit we need to break. We need to accept and acknowledge that the two sides are not the same -- 1, Democrats, who are trying to figure out how to maintain democracy and not destroy the planet, and 2, whatever the Republicans have become, who are undermining democracy and apparently don't care about the planet at all because they think it's just a pit-stop on their way to an all-white heaven (I guess, it's hard to tell what the motivations over there really are.) I agree with your title, that trade-off is not a bad word. But I think that we need to fiercely accept it's truth. This administration passed the most sweeping and comprehensive climate bill any country has passed, let alone our historically climate-dening country, and true, it doesn't have everything everyone wants, but it's a big important step and trade-offs aren't inherently bad. They're how stuff actually gets done. It's never wrong to have wishes and hopes and goals for how perfect things might one day be, but I think at this precarious moment in our history, the work we need to be doing right now is not wish that the elected officials and candidates (who are doing the most they can do in our flawed system to literally save the planet) should set aside their practical goals and intentions and behave as though they are in a beautiful dream democracy, and not the complicated messy one we have now. The work we need to be doing at this precarious moment in our history is to inspire more faith and energy among voters, to motivate people to make those trade-offs, to vote against those who will drive us right over the cliff and for those who will at least keep us on the road for now, even if we don't love all of their positions on everything.