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Steve Kirsch

Steve Kirsch

Posted: January 4, 2011 03:00 PM

Have you ever noticed that our country hasn't got a single written credible long-term plan for dealing with any of the biggest issues facing our nation today?

Today, there are no written long-term plans for reducing unemployment and growing our economy, stopping global warming, controlling health care costs, or fixing education. They are simply nowhere to be found. Not from Democrats. Not from Republicans.

In fact, there aren't even any committees of credible experts appointed by the President to create any of these plans.

Is this any way to run a country?

If the US were a business, no venture capitalist would fund us. We have no plan for growth, no credible plan for achieving profitability, and no credible plan for paying our debts.

If the US government walked into a bank asking for a loan, we'd be laughed out of the building. We are currently over $14 trillion dollars in debt and every day we spend $4 billion dollars more than we make. We don't even have a credible story for how we are going to change that. We don't have any story at all. Would you loan us money?

While I'm not suggesting that we should start running our country like a business, some basic principles like vision, long-term goals, strategic plans, and financial responsibility apply to both governments and business.

Wouldn't it be great if at the State of the Union speech, Obama announced that he would adopt the very successful planning methodology that President Kennedy and Johnson used for solving the nation's biggest problems? Not only did that planning methodology lead to the most successful legislative agenda in US history (a 96% passage rate), but the policies themselves also worked astonishingly well in achieving their objectives. Many are still being used today.

There is nothing keeping Obama from doing this. It isn't hard to do. No special interest can prevent it from being done. There are no excuses for not even attempting to create credible plans. All Obama has to do is make a decision to do it and then nothing can stop it from happening. But with the exception of Secretary Vilsack, nobody on Obama's team seems to have any interest in copying the successful long-term strategic planning strategies of previous Presidents. They seem quite content and happy doing the same old methods over and over and expecting a different result than they got in 2010.

For example, if Obama wanted to create a credible long-term comprehensive plan to solve global warming, he could pick up the phone, call Jim Hansen, and say, "Jim, global warming is a big issue and I know you are the leading world expert on this issue. I'd like you to select a committee of nine people you think would do the best job of coming up with a long term plan for dealing with this issue worldwide, and have them write a plan for me that is on my desk in 90 days? I'll then ask a dozen independent experts if the plan is credible, and if a bunch of of them tell me it is, I'll give it to another committee to strategize how to get it passed in Congress and implemented. It will be tough to do to get it passed with all the special interests that will be against it, but I'm going to give it everything I got. After all, that's what they elected me to do."

How hard is that? It's been done before by US Presidents. Successfully. That same approach created the most successful legislative agenda in US history.

What does a long-term plan look like? It is not a piece of legislation. It is not a policy or a set of policies. A long-term plan is a document that describes clear, measurable goals, and lays out the particular strategies that will be used to achieve those goals. The plan has major milestones, key strategic bets, a budget, a discussion of the risk factors, and how those risk factors will be mitigated. It describes what laws are required and what incentive policies need to be put in place so that everything works together to achieve the goals. There is a discussion of alternative paths and why the path chosen in the plan is preferred.

There are lots of excuses for inaction. Some people think you can't do this in a Democracy or that we have to change the political system to do it. Yet we know that isn't true since other US Presidents did it not that long ago.

A couple of people assured me that Obama must surely have such plans, but for strategic reasons he isn't telling anyone. That's wishful thinking. The reality is that some senior staff people inside the White House are as frustrated as I am about the lack of long-term strategic plans. People who have been in secret meetings with the Vice President also tell me there is no long-term strategy. Johnson's long-term strategic plans were all public. Not a single one needed to be secret. Finally, even if there were secret plans, you really can't keep any of them secret for very long if you plan on changing anything or win elections. They either have to be translated into an Executive Order or passed by Congress. If Obama expects to change anything during his term in office, if there were any plans, we'd have known by now.

Others say that there are no "truly independent experts to validate the plan." But the point of the experts is just to validate that the plans are credible. Universal agreement among experts is not required (and rare to achieve on anything). Agreement on which experts should be used to validate the plans isn't required either. There just needs to be credible validation by a reasonable number of credible experts. This sort of thing is done all the time in the scientific community where is known as "peer review." The point is that if you have a plan and ask 100 experts what they think and 99 experts say it is credible, and 1 does not, that is simply more likely to be a better plan than one in which 99 out of 100 experts say it is unworkable. We don't need the best possible plans. We just need solid plans that can work.

One person told me that you can't make any plans at all because the media and the opposition pounce on any idea for change and pick it apart. So for example, suppose Obama had a plan to reduce health care costs or a plan to make us energy independent so we don't have to send billions of dollars overseas buying foreign oil. I'm having a tough time imaging how people would be protesting against such plans. I'm sure some will. Nobody said it would be easy. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to get it done or that it is impossible to do.

Some people think that Obama can't create these plans because they think he is "controlled" or "in bed" with the special interests or corporations. As far as I know, very few, if any, special interests benefit from a lousy US economy. No large US corporation I know makes more money when the US economy tanks. I've never heard of any US CEO wish for lower US sales next quarter. When the US economy tanked in 2008, the earnings of the S&P 500 went negative in Q4; the first time this has ever happened. Every company I know of wants lower health care costs. So the "special interests" are not aligned to prevent our moving forward on creating plans that help our economy. They should all welcome such plans and push their lobbyists to get them passed in Congress.

To me, the lack of any independently validated written long-term plans for dealing with our top issues is the single biggest issue facing America today.

If the President and Democrats don't want to have long term plans for solving our biggest problems, what is keeping the Republicans from creating them? Republicans don't have any plans either that can be validated by independent third party subject matter experts. Their plans are equally lame. For example, the Republican health care plan is to repeal Obama's plan entirely. That's not a plan. That's stupid. As far as I know, there aren't any credible independent health care experts who say that the most important thing we can do right now to improve health care in the US is to completely repeal every single provision in the health care reform we just passed.

Most voters I've talked to see the problem clearly. Secretary Vilsack sees it clearly (not surprising since he was also outstanding for demanding solid goals and business plans for each department when he was governor of Iowa). But most other politicians I know don't see the problem at all.

My brother is a staunch Republican. I asked him recently, "If Obama had credible long term plans for dealing with our top issues that were validated by independent experts, would you vote for him in 2012?" His response was instant and emphatic, "Absolutely!"

Some people say that Obama has written plans for our top issues posted on his website.

I disagree. Here's what that site says about climate change: "We will invest in energy efficiency and conservati­on, two sure-fire ways to decrease deadly pollution and drive down demand. And we will hold special interests accountabl­e as we finally work to address climate change and its potentiall­y catastroph­ic effects." That's it.

That is not a plan for how we stay under 350ppm to avoid a climate disaster. Those are at best a few tactics that only work domestically and will have marginal impact even at that.

A real plan for climate change would say what the maximum allowable ppm goal is, set specific prices on carbon over the next 10 years (at least), and tell us specifically what the rebate to consumers is (will it be 100%? 0%? 50%?). It would talk about specific dollars we'd invest in each major carbon free power technology and when we'd make those investments. It would set goals for how many nuclear plants would be built in the US the next 10 years (10? 100? 1000?). It would lay out specific incentives for that to happen. It would have a credible strategy for getting the rest of the world to reduce their carbon emissions. For example, if we make massive investments in lowering the cost of nuclear to make it cheaper than coal and then help finance conversion­s of coal plants to carbon free nuclear plants worldwide, that is probably better than praying that other countries will implement carbon taxes or fee-and-dividend or cap-and-trade. It would talk about investing in fast nuclear and pyroproces­sing and set specific aggressive target dates for operation and feasibilit­y demonstrat­ions for those technologies. It would talk about how we use fast reactors to completely get rid of all of the long term nuclear waste. You may not agree with me about nuclear, and you may not like my plan (and that certainly wasn't a complete plan which would be too large to fit here), but that isn't the point. That was just an example of some of the things a real plan might contain. Any credible long-term strategic plan would have things like I just mentioned in it: a comprehensive set of specific goals, key strategic bets, milestones, overall strategies, specific incentives, investment dollars, etc. which all work together and have a reasonable chance of hitting the overall goal and a way to measure whether you've achieved the goal. That would be a plan. Hoping that all of these things happen on their own or that global warming suddenly "goes away" is foolhardy. Hoping that some magic new technology is invented that saves the day is risky and irresponsible. We have the technology to address this problem now. We know what public policy to use (fee and rebate). The public policy is even politically popular in other countries. What we lack is political leadership to get it done here.

I find it amazing that both parties expect people to go to the polls and be energized about voting for people who have no credible plans for fixing the most important problems facing our nation today. The only reason the Tea Party got any traction in 2010 is because of a complete lack of a legislative agenda from either party that people could believe in and get excited about that had a realistic chance of solving our top problems.

Obama has very little time left to change that. He has my permission to start now.

UPDATE: 1/21/11 Obama appointed Jeff Immelt to head a his new President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. That's a good start.

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