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Stephen R. Covey

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A Third Alternative to the Debt Crisis?

Posted: 08/05/11 09:48 AM ET

The rigid partisanship behind last week's spectacle in Washington came very close to injuring the entire world economy. The deal that was struck will not keep the mountainous deficit from growing. This battle is over, but the war will continue and get worse until our leaders change their thinking. There is a better way than the constant fighting over compromises that solve nothing.

As with every conflict of two opposing alternatives, there is always a third alternative. The better way is to go for that alternative.

We get to a third alternative through a process called synergy. Synergy is what happens when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, when 1 + 1 equals 10 or 100 or even 1000! It's the mighty result when two or more respectful human beings decide together to move beyond their preconceived ideas to meet a great challenge.

Synergy is not just resolving a conflict, but transcending a conflict. We go beyond it to something new, something that excites everyone with fresh promise and transforms the future. Synergy is better than my way or your way. It's a higher way.

In the past forty years, I have taught the power of "third-alternative thinking" to dozens of heads of state, corporate leaders, and hundreds of thousands of people across the world. I've seen agonizing conflicts of many years standing transformed in just a few hours.

The United States was founded on the principle of synergy. When aristocratic planters from the South and bluff Yankees from New England and divergent thinkers such as Adams, Madison and Hamilton came together, they produced a miracle of synergy in the Constitution. It was a totally new thing in the world, a third alternative to despotism on one hand and disintegration on the other.

In the centuries since, spectacular American gains in science, business, art and technology have welled up from a fusion of unbelievably diverse minds from the world over. Our national mode of thinking is synergistic--together, we are always cooking up better ideas.

People call for compromise on the debt issue, but compromise is not the same as synergy. In a compromise, 1 + 1 = 1 ½. In other words, everyone loses something. Both sides make concessions, neither side is truly satisfied, and the conflict is just postponed. It's called "kicking the can down the road," which is precisely what happened in Washington on Sunday. On the vital issue of the deficit, we should expect more from our leaders than a mindset of compromise. As Americans, we should expect synergy.

How do you get to synergy?

The first step is the hardest. You have to be willing to put aside your position long enough to understand the other side. "You differ from me. That means I need to listen to you." If the two of us share the same viewpoint, one of us is unnecessary; the more you differ, the more I can learn from your perspective. In Washington, though, the rule is the opposite: "You differ from me. That means I need to fight you."

If our representatives really want synergy instead of scoring points on the other side, they will stop and truly listen until they deeply understand each other. This is a prerequisite to synergy. I challenge Republicans to make the Democrats' case back to them as well as or better than the Democrats can, and vice versa. Only then will they genuinely grasp and empathize with the convictions of the other. Only then will all sides escape the psychological suffocation in the phrase "You just don't understand."

The next step is to ask this question: "Now, are you willing to look for a solution that is better than what either one of us has come up with yet?" This question can change everything. If the answer is yes, we can put aside all of our prejudices and preconceptions. The energy wasted on conflict gets rechanneled as we set out on a path of creativity rather than confrontation. We have no idea what valuable new discoveries await us as our energy flows toward something new and better.

A third step is to explore possibilities freely, richly, and without restraints. The real deficit is a deficit of ideas. Great discoveries come only when people with different perspectives permit themselves to experiment. Each member of Congress is a unique individual, gifted with far more talent, insight, passion, and ingenuity than he or she is even allowed to express. They are of all ethnic groups and creeds, experts in law and business, doctors and history teachers, scientists and aviators and even carpenters. Just imagine what this highly diverse pool of talent could invent if they freed themselves from the grip of their adversarial mindset.

We are not the first in history to face a debt crisis, and leaders of the past have found creative solutions.

In the 17th century, Jean-Baptiste Colbert cut the crippling French national debt by 83 percent through an ingenious combination of incentives. Through open borders and tax exemptions, he lured the best entrepreneurial minds in the world to France. The resulting synergies produced a great leap in French economic power and revenues to pay down the debt.

President Andrew Jackson virtually eliminated the debt of the U.S. Government in 1835 by vetoing Congressional "logrolling" schemes to get Federal largess for local road and canal projects. Local governments picked up the slack and improvements went forward anyway.

After World War II, a shattered Germany faced overwhelming debt dating back to the 1920s. The inventive London Agreement of 1953 restructured the debt "pending reunification," enabling Germany to roar back as an industrial power and eventually pay the debt.

We are no less innovative today. We simply need to change our mindset from conflict to creativity, from squabbling to synergy. I have no idea what the solution might be, but I do know that talented people working together with a synergistic mindset can yield a wealth of ideas.

What about a one-off tax on those best able to pay it? So-called "lifestyle diseases" are driving Federal health expenditures sky high -- how about a wellness bonus for staying healthy? Two thirds of the Federal workforce will be eligible for retirement in 2015 -- how about giving them a final project of creating ways to eliminate their own jobs? The Federal Government employs 125,000 financial professionals -- couldn't this vast group of minds be tasked to figure out how to serve the American people far more cost effectively? Given the huge bubble in entitlement expenses due to the baby boomers, couldn't the debt be restructured (á la the London Agreement) until that generation passes? Instead of raising the debt ceiling from $14 trillion, could we lower it as some have suggested by redefining the debt to the $9 trillion owed to the public?

I throw out this handful of ideas not to advocate any of them but to glimpse the cornucopia of "third alternatives" that a synergistic group of people might come up with. But as long as Washington stays captive to "my point of view or nothing," no synergy is possible. As Marshall McLuhan observed, "A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding."

 
 
 

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