How to start a conversation: David Brooks

David Brooks, the conservative columnist for The New York Times, can be irritating to a Californian: 

During his first term, President Obama faced a wicked problem: How do you govern in a highly polarized, evenly divided country with House Republicans who seem unwilling to compromise? 

The GOP did not "seem" to be unwilling to compromise. They famously said they were not going to compromise on issues like spending and health care, and also made clear they would not even discuss immigration or gay marriage. 

Yet Brooks can find a sweet spot in the latest crucial budget debate, and start a conversation:

Before he gets lost in the mire of negotiations, the president could step back and practically describe the task ahead. Between 1947 and 2007, the U.S. economy grew an average of 3.3 percent a year. But over the next few decades, according to forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office, it’s projected to grow only at 2.3 percent per year. The task ahead is to make the sort of structural changes that will get America back on its old growth trajectory.

Then the president could remind everyone that there’s lots to do. Some of the things on the to-do list are things Democrats relish doing: investing in infrastructure and basic research; reforming immigration to attract global talent; investing in student loans and community colleges; trimming the annual $1.1 trillion in tax loopholes, many of which go to corporations and the rich.

Other things the Republicans will surely relish doing: simplifying a tax code that has bloated to 74,000 pages; streamlining the Code of Federal Regulation that has metastasized to 165,000 pages; slowing entitlement spending.

For a panel discussion this Monday at the Art Center in Ojai, someone did a little research on the contentiousness of our current politics.

(Let me give a shout to the organizer of this event, master of words Tree Bernstein, for this idea, to assemble =a couple of writers, an editor, a screenwriter, a publisher, a curator, to think out loud in public about Civil Discourse.) 

Well, here's an interesting fact: Three of the last four presidential elections have been decided by a margin of 2.7% or less. That means excruciatingly close elections in the Bush years, and then another close election again this year. One analysis I saw — somewhere — said that only about 350,000 votes in four states — Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and Florida — decided the election in 2012. 

This is very unusual in American politics. It's not an illusion that the nation is badly divided today. Looking at the numbers, we can see that this neck and neck kind of election horse race has only broken out once before in our history, during Reconstruction, in the era between James Garfield and Grover Cleveland, between 1889-1892. 

(That's a little deceptive, true, as it glosses over the Civil War years. But never mind.) 

Various solutions to the divisiveness were suggested, including idealism, moderation, humor, and story-telling. Someone said that the argument over the marginal tax rate is an argument whether should tax conventional income as 35% — or 40%.

As the WSJ points out, the tax has been as low as 7% at its inception, and as high as 92% during wartime.

Can our politics imagine the kind of deal we could put together, to give our economy a shot or two in the arm, using both left wing and right wing ideas? 

That's the question Brooks asks, and it's a good one. 

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