23 Apr

Unintended Consequences and Political Decision-Making: Think Like an Eagle

Louise Annarino

April 23, 2012

When I was 5 years old I dug a hole over my head in our backyard to get to China, which I had been told was on the opposite side of the earth.Being so deep, with the hole’s rim above my head, I could not see any part of our yard; so, I was unaware of her presence until my Mother hauled me out, covered in dirt. She was not happy.

While growing up in the post-war building boom, contractors would build plywood fences around construction sites to keep people out. They drilled large holes at various heights allowing the public to peer through and satisfy their curiosity about the on-going progress. I could not pass without looking into the hole. It seemed as if I were viewing the entire area through that small hole. It was not until the fence was removed the first time, and the project unveiled that I could see it in its unsuspected entirety. It amazed me how much had been hidden from view. After the first such unveiling, looking through small holes became very frustrating rather than illuminating. I was dissatisfied and often complained to the construction bosses to lower the fence so we could see over. They were not happy with me.

English Literature anthologies serve a purpose. They contain a selection of a variety of types of work from various writers. Longer works are not printed in their entirety. Just when I start enjoying a longer piece, it is “cut off”. Just when I began to appreciate a particular writer, it is off to another. I want to read a writer’s entire body of work, to know him well enough to discern his untitled voice. In high school, I spent hours on my own reading beyond class assignments. The insights I gained did not always serve me well. When tested on a particular writer my expanded knowledge often put my responses at odds with those sought by my instructor. Some instructors considered me a “thorn” in their sides.

As a young lawyer I soon learned that not every case should be appealed. One of the first female lawyers in Columbus told a story about appealing a murder conviction in which her client was given a life sentence. On appeal, he was given the death penalty. When deciding whether or not to appeal a case, many things are considered: possibility of success, impact upon client, unintended consequences, etc. Every lawyer knows that a  “bad” case can make “bad” law.

Lawyers learn to appeal only “good” cases. As a poverty lawyer in the 70’s I learned patience; the ability to wait for a specific case with a “good” set of facts to bring a class-action on a food-stamps,unemployment compensation,or AFDC issue to reduce the chance that the appellate decision would have negative unintended consequences for all benefit recipients. As an Assistant Attorney General at a state university in the 1980-90’s, I learned that an appeal on behalf of one state agency could have negative unintended consequences on another state agency. Taking legal action requires an attorney to anticipate and prepare for such unintended consequences. A good lawyer looks at the entire picture, not through a single peephole. A good lawyer recognizes he is often working down in a hole. A good lawyer also knows how to focus on details, and appreciate the tedious nature of research. A good lawyer, and a good president, must be able to focus on tedious details and be able see the larger picture in order to  avoid unintended consequences.

What are unintended consequences? Those things we cannot anticipate if we are down in a hole, unable to perceive the surrounding circumstances, as I was while digging to China. What we cannot anticipate when we view something through a small peephole, one piece at a time, rather than viewing it as a whole, as if looking through a plywood fence with built-in peepholes. Thinking we understand something even though we have only studied and learned a few things about it, a small portion of its reality, as when reading a compilation of literary selections. Reducing the chance an unintended consequence will have a negative impact requires breadth and depth analytical thinking, a process which takes time, patience, and humility.

Today’s multi-media, instant-communication, 24-7 feed, tweeting, social media, etc. are windows on the world; but, the windows are mere peep-holes. We dig holes for ourselves using apps, and spend so much time digging around we delude ourselves that we are accomplishing something. We can explore anything, and do. We feel enlightened, and we are. We gain confidence in our place in the world, and we should. But what we see and what we know is very limited, offering short-term insight which encourages short-term responses. Perhaps most importantly, we must understand that we do not have access to all we need to know, despite increased transparency. We are still operating in a hole, not a whole, learning only bits and pieces, looking though small openings onto the world around us.

Yet, we readily assess our president’s performance, and his administration’s policies as if we knew what he knows. As if we know all there is to know. As if we can see what he sees up ahead. We ignore the fact that the president of a nation has a bigger picture of what the world really looks like, than any perception available to us. It is time to step back and admit we on the ground are ill prepared to substitute our judgment for his. Instead, we must work together, sharing with him what we know as he attempts to do so with us.

President Obama won in 2008 with the widest margin of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson was elected. Such a large majority elected him not simply because of his message of hope to so many who had lost hope during 8 years of the Bush administration, but because he is able to see what so many of us cannot, beautifully articulated in his soaring speeches. He can see the forest for the trees.

We use words to describe President Obama such as “lofty” (Republican version:elitist), “soaring”(Republican version:pompous), “confident” (Republican version:cocky) to illustrate through our speech that he is somehow above us, able to see a broader and longer view than we can imagine from our limited range of vision. This does not mean we feel inferior. Rather, we feel elevated by our shared vision. We feel, finally, part of the whole in a way we had not before. He continually calls us to “join him”, “share with him”. He recognizes and reminds us we are a family, we are the “United” States of America; and, we are in this together (Republican version: he’s “not one of us”). Republican descriptions of President Obama could not be more wrong. Their insistence that President Obama is a divider is a symptom of their own failed vision of America, and of America’s future.

There are 3 types of thinkers: 1)Detailers who focus on the problem immediately before them in great detail, experts in their field. Detailers focus on the immediate concern, looking for near-term solutions. 2)Expansionists who see a problem as part of a larger whole. Expansionists focus on the broad implications of the immediate problem, looking for long-term solutions. 3)Eagles who are capable of seeing the whole picture as their minds soar long and broad across the horizon, and are able to dive down into the canopy of detail, even set down upon the earth.Eagles are the exceptional few who combine the thinking styles of both 1 and 2. President Obama is an eagle.

For example, in September 2011, President Obama was highly criticized for opposing a proposed EPA rule reducing smog causing chemicals. NYT.com/2011/09/03. The president rejected the proposed rule saying that it would impose too severe a burden on industry and local governments at a time of economic distress.

Such an attack,based on a peep-hole viewpoint, was premature.Shortly thereafter,in November, 2011 President Obama, who obviously knew in September that the November proposals were forthcoming, was praised for his “proposed fuel efficiency and global warming pollution standards for new cars and light trucks in model years 2017-25…(supported by)13 major automakers and the United Autoworkers…” http://ecowatch.org/2012/ fighting-for-air-groups-launch-campaign-to-support-u-s-epas-life-saving-standards.

Not long after this change, on April 18, 2012 the EPA “finalized the first-ever national standards to reduce mercury and other toxic air emissions – like arsenic, acid gas, and cyanide – from power plants, which are the largest sources of this pollution in the United States…This crucial step forward will bring enormous public health benefits. By substantially reducing emissions of toxic pollutants that lead to neurological damage, cancer, respiratory illnesses, and other serious health issues, these standards will benefit millions of people across the country, but especially children, older Americans, and other vulnerable populations. Cumulatively, the total health and economic benefits to society could reach $90 billion each year….The first comprehensive update in decades of regulations governing the oil and gas operations, the new rules require the drilling industry to capture air pollutants from well-completion work, including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” pipelines, storage tanks and compressor stations.

“U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said the regulation is “an important step toward tapping future energy supplies without exposing American families and children to dangerous health threats in the air they breathe…In conjunction with the release of the rule, President Obama also issued a Presidential Memorandum which underscores the health benefits of the rule and directs EPA Administrator Jackson to use flexibilities built into the Clean Air Act where needed, and to work proactively with states, industry and other entities in a transparent manner to implement the rule in way that delivers the health benefits of the rule while addressing reliability concerns.” http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/12/21/protecting-american-families-and-environment-mercury-pollution

This example of how President Obama implemented his promised environmental policy is but one example of how a type 3 thinker strategizes long-term change while managing short-term problems.

It has been too easy to attack President Obama. Both the right and left continue to do so. Every interest group does so. Are we eager for immigration reform? Of course. Are we impatient for more and better jobs? Who would not be impatient?

But, we must realize that President Obama enacted these environmental protections, and each policy success, despite every possible obstruction by Republicans in Congress. Are our peepholes too small to see this? Are we busy standing in holes of our own making? Let’s look at the whole picture.

Republicans block every forward looking effort President Obama makes. Democratic bills seldom if ever make it out of Republican-controlled House committees. Senate Republicans use the filibuster to keep Democratic bills from even reaching the Senate floor for discussion. Republicans stress short-term solutions because it plays best upon our fears, and too few of us can see beyond the daily struggles of caring for ourselves and our families to pay attention to long-term solutions. They have tried to make life difficult for the middle class and the poor in order to reign in our hopes for the future, to limit our long-term American dreams, to convince us President Obama is a failure. They plant short-term thinking into talking points so we will analyze President Obama in short-term gains. They want President Obama to be a short-term president. They don’t want him to achieve long-term gains. They fear his depth and his breadth.Yet, none of their candidates is so capable as is President Obama.

Republican’s depiction of Mitt Romney as a businessman capable of changing America for the better is a farce. Mitt Romney’s record at Bain of eliminating workers benefits, shutting out workers’ business participation(eliminating unions), and eliminating jobs may offer a short-term solution for a few companies’ survival. But, Romney can’t see beyond his own very narrow, short-term interest. He has no foreign affairs experience,education,nor training.The reason he appears stiff and phony when stating he “understands” us or is “one of us” is because he does not and is not one of us. He is living the American Dream, but at our expense. He does not want to give up his dream to share ours. He even keeps his wealth off-shore!

The choice is clear to me in this election: vote for Romney’s short-sighted and ineffectual return to old failed policies; or vote for Obama’s far-sighted expansion of America’s future progress. It is critical that we pay close attention to the House and Senate races at the state and national level as well. We must elect Democratic candidates who will support President Obama’s policies, not those who prevent any discussion and deny Congress a vote on them.

And to those who continue to make short-sighted comments attacking President Obama I warn you to beware of unintended consequences. You could end up with the wrong man leading this country and find the dream of a broader and more forward thinking America is no longer an option.


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