In healthcare summit, an epic battle of elephant vs. parrot

The healthcare reform debate is explained using the metaphor of an elephant and a parrot.

Martin Terlecki/AP Photo/Melbourne Zoo

Check here for a YouTube video of a GE commercial (there’s both a dancing elephant and a parrot in it–as well as other supporting characters in this unusual “Singin’ in the Rain” cast).

The “elephant” is not a reference to the GOP, but the “parrot” is a reference to health care reform… (Stay with me here…)

The Washington Post’s Kevin Huffman writes about both animals today, in the context of yesterday’s health reform summit (my emphasis added):

Thursday’s health-care summit was the latest episode in an epic battle between the elephant and its rider.

The elephant, in a metaphor originally devised by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, stands for our emotional side. It enables our capacity for love and loyalty and is behind our drive to protect our families. The rider stands for our rational side. It’s what makes long-term plans, sets the alarm clock and tells us to walk away from that pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

For the better part of the past year, Democrats have appealed to logic with health-care proposal after complicated health-care proposal, while Republicans have appealed to tea party emotion. It’s been comprehensive reform vs. the audacity of nope, and, if you believe the polls, nope is winning.

How is this possible? Well, in the fascinating new book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard,” authors Chip and Dan Heath draw from social science research to argue that we embrace change only by bringing these oft-conflicted systems into alignment. They argue, “When change efforts fail, it’s usually the elephant’s fault since the kind of change we want typically involves short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs.” At the same time, the rider without the elephant is prone to paralysis by over-analysis. Ultimately, the authors write, “a reluctant elephant and a wheel-spinning rider can both ensure that nothing changes.”

To me, this elephant-and-rider story is not just reminiscent of the health care debate; it’s the storyline of anything the government tries to do for the sake of “fiscal responsibility.” It’s a hard problem to solve and the “elephant” in all of us isn’t just unconvinced, but completely disengaged…disenchanted…uninspired… BORED.

At yesterday’s health care summit, the President was indeed in control and acting like “commander in chief”–but more than that he was acting like “professor in chief” (as the Post’s Dana Milbank emphasizes in his front-page story and as I “tweeted” saying Professor Obama is on a roll…”). But who was listening, and who changed their minds? Out of everything the President explained, got right, and straightened out (like the wise and commanding professor), the line that probably made (or should have made) the most impact with not just the politicians but more importantly the American public (if they were watching at that point) was this one highlighted by E.J. Dionne:

[G]ood for Obama for asking Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) if he would really rather have catastrophic care than comprehensive health coverage…But Obama then made the central point of the whole day. Speaking of the uninsured, he said: “We can debate whether we can afford to help them. We can’t say they don’t need help.”

Back to Kevin Huffman’s column, he also thinks appealing to the compassion in the politicians and Americans more generally would have been better than lecturing to them:

My unsolicited advice: a little less rider, a little more elephant. When Kathleen Sebelius talks up “pooled purchasing options,” people’s eyes glaze over. The logical arguments are good, but my elephant could not care less. Instead, try tapping into a deeper sentiment: This is America. We are the kind of country that doesn’t let a man go bankrupt because his wife or kids get sick. We believe everyone deserves a doctor. That’s who we are.

So what’s the “parrot” got to do with anything? Again from Kevin Huffman:

In “Switch,” the authors tell a story about the St. Lucia parrot — a magnificent, colorful creature that lives only on that Caribbean island. Biologists were writing the species’ eulogy when conservation activist Paul Butler found himself charged with figuring out how to save the parrot. Butler had ideas: create a bird sanctuary, license eco-tourism and muscle up the punishments for harming the parrot. But he also had a problem. Most people on St. Lucia didn’t know about the parrot, let alone care, and some people even ate the poor bird. What to do?

Instead of making an analytical case, Butler went for the emotional. He appealed to St. Lucians’ national character. The message: We are the kind of people who take care of our own. This bird is ours alone, and we must protect it. He built popular support for new laws, and today, there are seven times as many parrots happily squawking on the island.

If the appeal to “emotional side” in all of us had been emphasized at yesterday’s summit, not only would the politicians have been more likely to see the “common ground” between them in terms of the goal or the “prize,” but they also would have been more inclined to work together to find agreement about the really tough choices about how to afford to claim the prize–how to achieve what everyone actually wants to do about health care, and deficit reduction, and all the other difficult policy issues that get stuck because people care only enough to want the goodies but not enough to be willing to pay for them.

It’s like I said in reaction to the President’s fiscal commission:

[T]he first thing the President’s fiscal commission needs to do is to start getting out there and talking with real Americans, educating them about why we even need to worry about the budget deficit, and asking them about the (hard) choices they’re willing to make (or not).

…because I have a feeling that what Paul Tsongas said was right (that we are better than what our leaders ask us to be), and we as Americans may be more willing to save the “parrot” of health care reform (or fiscal sustainability more generally) than our politicians realize. They just have to talk with us more about the parrot and all there is to love about it, rather than all there is to think about it. They have to let our elephant in us save the parrot.

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