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Dr. Sasha Galbraith Headshot

What If Women Were in Charge of the Debt Talks?

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With the debt ceiling talks wrapping up (for now), it's a great time to look at what went wrong and what we might do differently going forward. After all, Congress has only succeeded in kicking the can down the road, since the core debate about future spending and revenues was postponed.

Something about the latest debt ceiling talks reminds me of kids' play gone awry. Boehner stomps out of the talks, claiming the other side changed the rules mid-game. Obama gets on his soapbox, whining about how his playmate "left him at the altar." Grow up! Didn't we ostensibly elect adults to do the peoples' business in Washington?!?

In a recent Forbes.com column, I focused my attention on this dysfunctional behavior in Washington and argued -- would things have turned out differently if women had been in charge?

I believe the answer is yes, here's why. First, women in charge of such a crucial negotiation would not let testosterone get the better of them. The posturing, strutting and "acting out" being done by the men in Congress is a direct result of testosterone gone wild under stress. You see this most often on Wall Street where stress and big-money decisions are the order of the day. Michael Lewis called those guys "Big Swinging Dicks" and Tom Wolfe anointed them "Masters of the Universe." If you need academic proof, take a look at John Coates' research on men and testosterone on the trading floor.

Second, most women negotiators in tough discussions tend to work toward win-win solutions for all concerned. Sure, men say they want this too, but how many of them actually embrace that outcome? Several scholars have analyzed male versus female negotiation styles and found that women tend to use more "integrative tactics" (cooperatively listening, sharing information, asking questions and working toward mutual solutions). In contrast, men tend to use threats, bluff, stake out extreme positions, and use competitive and confrontational tactics. Moreover, women are often more persistent when negotiating with men, and their efforts tend to produce better outcomes for all parties.

It seems unreasonably simple to me: if your household budget is out of balance, the rational person would seek to increase income while decreasing expenses. For a country that put a man on the moon and ran a taxi service to the International Space Station, this is not rocket science! Maybe the problem is men...

So I started wondering -- what would an agreement that was driven and hammered out by women look like? Here are some ideas:

  • Cut the military's budget. Even the outgoing Director of Defense said it was bloated so this should be a no-brainer.
  • Rich folks need to pay more, period. By "rich," I do not mean someone living in New York City earning a quarter million per year. I mean someone in NYC earning a couple million per year. The definition of "rich" in a particular region would hinge on the local numbers for purchasing power parity.
  • The rich population does not need to receive their full Social Security check. It's been called means testing.
  • Rich folks can contribute more as co-pay to Medicare. See above point.
  • Raise the age to qualify for Social Security and Medicare. In 1935 when the original Social Security Act was established, the average expected lifespan was 62 years. Today it's about 78 years.
  • Stop taxing interest earned on savings.
  • Simplify the tax code. No more deductions for million-dollar mortgages. Take your income and pay zero, 2, 5, 10, 15 or 20 percent depending on what range you fit into. The higher your income, the higher your tax rate. No more deductions and no more loopholes.
  • If you are breathing, you MUST have health insurance. This will make all of our insurance rates lower. The government can discontinue its sugar subsidies and apply them to low-income people who can't afford health insurance. If you're rich and want Cadillac care, then you pay extra for it. Employers should be taxed on the money they pay out for employee life and health insurance.
  • Reign in the health insurance companies. They should be regulated and forced to pay out 80% of the premiums they collect. Why not make all of them operate as mutual insurance companies? Is it really necessary to pay their CEOs millions of dollars per year in compensation - while squeezing the doctors and nurses who provide care?
  • Give tax credits for volunteer work.
  • Triple the tax on junk food and sugared drinks.
  • Put more money into the education system. That means increasing teacher salaries and giving them a budget to spend money at the local level for school supplies. It's completely absurd that cash-strapped teachers have to use their own funds to buy chalk, pencils and paper for their students.

My husband doesn't see this list as particularly "female." Fair enough. But would he actually get it done? Not likely, he says. I think that women, working with a few competent and low-ego men, actually could.

For the next round of discussions, Congress would be well served to appoint some women to the Joint Select Committee that's charged with really wrestling down our long-term deficit.