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Talking past each other

January 15, 2013

Republicans, Democrats, and everyone else could help improve the quality of debate in this country by ending the practice of talking past each other. The discussion surrounding the current fiscal debate is a constant lesson in how we do this: Republicans crow about the need to reduce entitlement spending because we don’t have any realistic methods to pay for it and Democrats accuse Republicans of attempting to dismantle vital parts of the social safety net. Neither side is addressing the primary concerns of the other. Republicans want reduced spending, but drag their feet when it comes specifics of how to reduce spending or what the impacts might be of the reduced spending, while Democrats completely dodge concerns of how to pay for the programs they are defending. It’s not hard to figure out why this tactic is employed so frequently: it’s because the part each side leaves out is the hard part. This makes it next to impossible to have a real debate about what to do if we completely ignore the concerns of our political opponents and often in fact confirms their suspicion that we do not have a solution.

Staying within the context the fiscal debate, Republicans should clearly state how they would like to see spending reduced. Means testing for Medicare and Social Security? Slower inflation adjustments for government benefits? Higher eligibility ages? Republicans should also further state what they expect to happen to individuals who would have formally been eligible for federal benefits. That way they would address Democratic concerns head-on over how dramatic the changes to the social safety net should be and how society might adapt to the changes. For their part, if Democrats believe Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the like can be preserved in something close to the current form then they should feel obligated to explain how to pay for this even as medical care costs continue to rise and a growing share of the US population draws on benefits in old age.  

I am not so naïve as to believe communicating more effectively would equate to agreement on many of these contentious issues, but at least we would know what we are arguing about.


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