Qualities that could solve America's budget crisis

Among the qualities: 'attunement' and equipoise. America's budget crisis won't be solved through 'book smarts' alone.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
President Obama hosts a meeting with Speaker of the House John Boehner (left) and other congressional Republican and Democratic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House to discuss fiscal policy April 13, 2011. Washington's leaders will have to use other qualities than intellect to solve the budget crisis.

Student No. 1: National Merit Scholar, near-perfect SAT score, now a freshman at highly ranked Princeton University.

Student No. 2: High school senior, not-so-perfect SAT score, recently accepted at unranked Sarah Lawrence College.

Does this imply that Student No. 1 is the "smarter" of the two? For me, their mother, that would be as wrong as suggesting that I love one of my daughters more than the other. Allie and Emily are as different and exceptional as the schools that picked them. What's key to determining worth is the measuring stick you use.

Princeton is the second-best university in the United States, right behind Harvard, according to the latest survey from U.S. News & World Report. For many parents trying to figure out which college will provide the best education for their kids – or at least which schools will best validate their kids' "worth" to the outside world – numerical rankings like the U.S. News list are the holy grail.

Sarah Lawrence, which cited daughter Emily's "stellar academic achievement" and ability to "stretch the limits of conventional thinking," is unranked by U.S. News. Since 2005, its stated policy has been to ignore SAT scores in its admissions process. "The information produced by SAT scores added little to our ability to predict how a student would do at our college," wrote then-President Michele Tolela Myers in a 2007 op-ed.

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Standardized measures are important in determining how well people have mastered specific skills. The problem is that they're woefully incomplete, as columnist David Brooks explains in his new book, "The Social Animal." In a New York Times synopsis, Mr. Brooks argues that our society's numerous policy failures are attributable to "reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature … [in which we] emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below."

As one example, he points to how "[w]hen we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores." Then we elevate people to positions of great authority based on those great scores rather than on their abilities to understand and communicate well with others.

Among those important qualities that go unmeasured, according to Brooks, are attunement ("the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer"), equipoise ("the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one's own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings"), metis ("the ability to see patterns"), and limerence (the motivation to achieve moments of transcendence whereby "we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task, or the love of God").

The recent and upcoming budget negotiations between House Republicans and the White House are an example of a challenging policy issue that requires leadership, talent, and creativity. The compromise that averted a government shutdown earlier this month was not ideal, achieved only in the literal 11th hour when politicians were forced to snap out of their game of "chicken."

Now facing the much bigger budget battles that lie ahead, our leaders will really have to do better.

Washington is full of book-smart people who are highly ambitious and successful in the traditional, measurable sense. But if we are to reach beyond ideological differences to come to an understanding for the common good, the halls of power could also use leaders with broader human qualities for which there is no entrance exam.

Diane Lim Rogers, chief economist at the Con­cord Coalition, blogs at

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