Guiding principles as a methodology to solve problems and maximize outcomes is a powerful tool. It begins by finding the commonalties among diverse groups in any situation. They are usually stronger than we anticipate. It states in broad terms what we are trying to achieve, identifies the parameters we have to live by, and sets critical targets to measure our success. Guiding principles operate on the tenet that we will maximize success for the greatest number without crippling any constituent. Guiding principles always seeks win-win situations. They do not tolerate disrespect, divisiveness or absolutes except those designated as such by the entire group. Everything is negotiable unless a consensus decides it is immutable. In fact, any characteristic that the entire group considers non-negotiable becomes a guiding principle. Guiding principles are not fixed for eternity but neither do they change with the breeze. They evolve over time only as necessary to be responsive to significant societal shifts.
In this book I considered how the concept of guiding principles could help our country address issues of national identity, food and energy systems, social ethics, clean government, education, addiction, infrastructure, foreign affairs, the economy, and healthcare. I imagine if I had cycled through different states, other important issues might have surfaced. I can imagine that Vermont might have conjured the environment, Virginia, veteran’s affairs; Texas, the penal system; Florida, senior care; Alabama, race relations or California, the media. The details of those discussions might have been different, but the application of the guiding principles approach would have been similar. If I am lucky, maybe I can ponder those topics on another cycling trip.
An expected criticism of the guiding principles approach is that it is naïve, too upbeat and collaborative to ever be effective in the down and dirty world of national politics. Cynics will tout, maybe this process can work in designing a new hospital, but allocating money among education, road repair, defense, and jobs creation is more complex and divisive than deciding whether a new wing will be dedicated to cardiology or oncology.
Actually, it is not any more complicated. All the same factors are at play. When a hospital builds a new wing they have to determine whether the wing will be designated to showcase their leading service, or if it will be an opportunity to grow an emerging service. Will the addition expand their capacity or will it free up overtaxed existing capacity. Will the new wing generate fresh revenue or is it necessary simply to meet contemporary standards of care like private inpatient rooms and robotic capable operating rooms. The hospital has to weigh wider considerations like what their competitors are doing, how changing demographics affect demand for care, what makes a sound philanthropic case (pediatrics offers easier fund raising opportunities than urology) as well as ever shifting reimbursement rates. The criteria that have to be factored to make reasoned decisions are complicated, but hospitals have to consider non-rational attributes as well – the intangible benefit of being the first in town to offer a newfangled technology and juggling the egos of all the doctors who want the bragging rights of a new wing. Agreed, the scale of a $300 million hospital addition is small compared to managing a $14 trillion dollar economy, but the challenge of balancing immediate needs versus long term investment, using objective measures, and fending off emotional pleas is exactly the same.
There are two reasons why we need to adopt guiding principles as a methodology for addressing our national problems in an intentional way. First, we know it can work; this was how our forefathers got the country started in the first place. They brought together the divergent voices of the thirteen colonies and hammered out a solution that led to independence. After we won our independence and instituted the Articles of Confederation we realized that it was not an effective form of government, so we came together again, wizened by the experience of too lax a federal system, to birth the Constitution in a similar process. In both cases the outcome was not known in advance; all sides took the risk to show up, air differences, find commonalties and forge a solution that worked best for all. In both cases no side came away with everything they wanted, but all sides came away with enough to make the change desirable. In both cases we succeeded in making improvements, yet failed to address all the issues at hand. Slavery turned out to be too contentious an issue to be resolved through negotiation, and eventually became the crux of the bloodiest war this nation has ever known. What we could not resolve through principled debate got decided in a manner we never want to experience again.
The second reason to use guiding principles is that the current environment of partisan posturing does not work. When every debate is framed to highlight opposing points of view, the more extreme the positions get the most media attention; they stir the drama, promote division and diminish the opportunity to come to agreement. Our current political process is grinding down the fabric of this land. It is diminishing our stature in the world, creating economic havoc and disengaging our citizens.
One of the most often used strategies for a person running for Congress is to run ‘againstWashington’, based on the premise that people in the Heartland disdain our Capital. After cycling 3,000 miles through the Heartland I am confident this is a misguided strategy. Americans do not disdain our Capital; we just hate the antics of politicians once they embrace Beltway games. We love our Capital, but we want it to be strong, vital; we want it to act decidedly and keep our country moving in a confident direction. We need a Federal Government; that is why we abandoned the Articles of Confederation and adopted the Constitution. But we want a government equal to our best. Our country has great problems, and individual Americans have great problems, which I metaphor as our obesity. Yet there are still many of us who are fit, energetic and curious, thrifty and prudent, and even more of us who, given the opportunity and incentive, can muster the discipline to shed our obese tendencies.
We want to reinvigorate this country, we are not afraid of the work required to rally our defining traits of independence, ingenuity and industry. Our leaders cannot do it, locked in their ideological traps. But fortunately for us we live in a country where ultimately the government belongs to the people and not the leaders. It is our right and our privilege to demand that our politicians move away from a culture of division and towards one that triumphs our common interest. It will require every individual in this country to find his voice and raise it loud toWashingtonuntil every elected official, every bureaucrat and every lobbyist hears our demands; they are so used to talking they barely listen. We can demand they put aside their bickering, we can demand they work with us. It is time to move this country forward again, in a direction guided by principle and not by partisanship. The only way to move forward is together.