Making Mountains, Not Molehills

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NEW YORK -- America just spent billions of dollars and man-hours on an election that basically returned the same players to the same roles, albeit with some significant tweaks. Perhaps those tweaks -- and the realization that President Barack Obama won by stitching together a new coalition -- are why the election is bearing unexpected fruit: There are flickers of deal-making in a gridlocked Washington. Compromise is in the air.

As yet, the compromises seem small, particularly when measured against the challenge -- sparing the United States the fate of becoming a slightly less-than-first-world country.

Talking of Republicans perhaps willing to raise taxes on the rich (and not just tax rates) or Democrats willing to cut entitlement programs is less than inspiring to many Americans weary of the haggling ways of Washington. And without popular backing, leaders lack the mandate -- or, more cynically, the cover -- required to push through major changes or make significant pivots.

Washington's afflictions have deep, complex roots. But a small part of the problem may lie in how it mentally constructs its work, fixating on tasks rather than causes.

Each issue -- the payroll tax, health care, renewable energy -- is imagined to be its own little island. Divisions over each island are straightforward, well-rehearsed and difficult to overcome.

What if Washington were to conceive of its work differently, as pursuing missions rather than the laws required to fulfill them, or building archipelagos, not islands?

Instead of the individual policy being the unit of analysis, the governing class might agree to pursue a few vast national projects that exploit what commonalities they have and are vital to the country's health. It could commit to these initiatives up front, through congressional resolutions and presidential signatures, which would include agreed-upon metrics to judge success. Then it could work out the specific policies required to fulfill them.

What might some of these national missions be?

One might be an aggressive campaign on behalf of the equality of opportunity. For the left, it's part of a wider pursuit of equality; for the right, it's the only kind of equality worth pursuing and the logical foundation of its laissez-faire agenda. Importantly, while the two sides disagree vehemently on equality for adults, they agree substantially on equality for children and its corollary, social mobility.

Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida, has said: "The sad truth is that equality of opportunity doesn't exist in many of our schools. We give some kids a chance, but not all. That failure is the great moral and economic issue of our time."

This initiative might inspire a variety of policy responses -- on schools, welfare, the estate tax, college loans. But the measure of success would not be the passage of any particular piece of legislation. It would be how well the talent-to-opportunity matching machine works for the poor, the middle class and businesses, and whether America stops being the rare rich country where parents' income can be used reliably to predict one's own.

A second national mission might be an effort to shore up the family. The complex weave of issues bearing on the family routinely are addressed piecemeal -- gay marriage, the war on drugs, abortion, abstinence education, welfare requirements, contraception access, the marriage tax penalty, the child tax credit, mortgage tax breaks for homeowners. On this individual level, the arguments are familiar and often go nowhere.

But there is widespread acknowledgement among scholars today, from Robert D. Putnam on the left to Charles A. Murray on the right, that the American family is undergoing something of a collapse. Births to unwed mothers are soaring, without any of the social supports of, say, Sweden. What crack cocaine once did to black inner-city communities, methamphetamine and pills are now doing to rural and suburban white ones. Meanwhile, the quality of one's early family life has been shown to be among the most important determinants of later success.

Liberals tend to blame social and economic structures for this breakdown, while conservatives often cite poor choices and moral failure. But there is enough agreement on the diagnosis for a grand initiative of family renewal. And that initiative could then encompass everything from updating marriage laws (Who gets to marry? What incentives, if any, should the married receive?) to deciding whether it hurts or helps families to require drug tests as a condition for receiving welfare.

You could dream up any number of such sweeping initiatives. Radical modernization of government, for instance, for the digital age. Increase cost-effectiveness but also impact; use the Web and mobile apps to empower citizens and to help them solve some problems without turning to government; copy the nonprofit sector by embracing its use of cutting-edge work in monitoring effectiveness and evaluating outcomes.

Or a big project to restore the American commercial spirit and the small-time capitalist striver. That embraces all kinds of policy questions: Should we grant visas to start-up founders? Break up the big banks? Ease regulations on small businesses? Favor job-creating companies over ones whose success is built on labor overseas?

The logic of this bundling is simple enough: It makes a forest of trees. It turns a handful of distinct policies into a single, animating cause. It frees politicians to go beyond the particulars of what they're legislating, and to remember what they're legislating for.

Join an online conversation at http://anand.ly .

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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