The Monitor's View

'Sequester' standoff need not be win-lose

Americans, not just politicians, are torn by so many choices in the budget standoff, now called the 'sequester.' One way for President Obama and Congress to avoid the consequences of sequestration is to adopt the concept of 'settling,' as put forth by one political theorist.

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    Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer speaks to a reporter before a meeting of the National Governors Association Feb. 23. Washington's budget stalemate could seriously undermine the US economy, the exasperated governors said.
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Americans identify with people who are strivers. It is a trait anchored in “the pursuit of happiness.” But personal striving can often lead to public strife. Take the “sequester” and its March 1 deadline for Congress to avoid big budget cuts.

The sequestration battle is a prime example of a government failure to sort out the conflicting demands on the public purse from so many strivers. A new Pew survey, for instance, finds Americans can’t agree on what to cut in federal spending – health, military, education, etc. How then can President Obama and the 535 voting members of Congress ever compromise?

But the excessive demands of strivers don’t usually have the same effect on local government. How is it that most cities, towns, and counties are able to settle their differences and balance their budgets? Why this difference between the federal and the local levels?

One answer lies in that word – settle.

In a recent book titled “On Settling,” political theorist Robert E. Goodin explores when and how we should settle in order to free ourselves to better discern and focus on our strivings. He suggests we “prune our decision tree” as a way to achieve reconciliation and to strive better.

At the local level, voters and their representatives are less boggled by complexity and more familiar with issues. Local officials aren’t as paralyzed by choices, as many consumers are in a food store when they face a hundred brands of breakfast cereal.

Mr. Goodin, an American and philosophy professor at the University of Essex in England, seeks to elevate settling to a virtue, in part to reduce the fear of making a wrong choice in a complex world.

Settling, he says, is not in opposition to striving but necessary for it. It is not resignation or agreeing to an unwanted prospect. It is a let-it-be-for-now ideal – with an emphasis on the “for now.” It is humility based on patience and an improved perception of goals.

Excessive striving can lead to disaster, such as that of the doomed Antarctic expedition of explorer Robert Scott. But striving tempered by settling can lead to victory, such as Mao Zedong’s Long March (a tactical and temporary retreat).

Modern technologies, such as the Internet and smart phones, have enhanced the tendency for restless desire and extreme behavior – or “chasing rabbits,” as Goodin says. People are in need of a more coherent life with fixed constants that can create trust and allow agreement, he says.

Obama, he points out, has evolved from the candidate of 2008 with lofty rhetoric and many goals to the president of 2013 who has learned to focus on fewer goals and knows when to settle.

The same sort of settling must happen with members of Congress if Washington is to end its fiscal crisis. Too many of them, both Democrats and Republican, are striving to an extreme, often to please narrow interests, and too often in many directions at once. The closest that the nation came recently to a fiscal settling was the 2010 deficit reduction panel known as Simpson-Bowles, a bipartisan letting-go of set positions – for now.

Settling is not making a habit of making do – of being only “good enough” – forever. It is interim deprivation on purpose. It is a prudent art that can be used in public debates about government. It is a value to be cherished and perfected as much as striving.

In order to strive, Goodin advises, we must settle. That common quality need not be an uncommon virtue.

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