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Tennis and American Political Conversations 4

A new framework for political problem-solving

By Scott Francisco  |  October 14, 2011

American political discourse is strained and stunted by America's one-dimensional political axis of "free market" and "regulation".  In our previous articles, we explored how the game of Tennis provides an example of a more complete framework, were the two other systems of "culture" and "technique" are critical to the the game.

Culture and technique form an alternate perpendicular axis that operates in addition to regulation or market all areas of social problem-solving.  This axis is not widely understood in America and we have little vocabulary for it.  Leaders must make a priority of developing a strong vocabulary of culture and technique in the same way that an engineer, a sailor or a chef learns the vocabulary of their respective crafts.  Without this vocabulary, American leaders will remain handicapped in their conversations and the creation of comprehensive and interdependent solutions.

We have described our two axes each made up of two systems in tension with each other.  The reason for the pairing of these systems in the first place is that the ideas inherent in each are "complementary" to each other; in a sense they are opposites.  This would suggest that an increase in regulation would automatically result an infringement on the free market, or vice versa.  And we have seen in the previous article how, in fact, an increase in technique in agriculture (genetically modified seeds) or in automobiles (Prius), displaces the culture that was previously responsible for the same challenges (community seed stocks, mechanical knowledge and fuel-frugality).

It is not inevitable, however, to take a "Win/lose" or "shades-of-grey" approach in complimentary pairs. There are many examples, such as copyright and patent laws, where clearly we get improved problem solving by supporting both regulation and free market.  Likewise we saw in the previous article how both a high concern for culture and a high concern for technique saved food and money in Japan through the concept of "mottainai," and also allowed for safer, faster transportation on the Autobahn in Germany.

This is exciting, because once we have a vocabulary of all four systems, we can begin to apply each of them strategically to almost any social challenge: Healthy food, architecture, urban bicycling, environmental protection, gun ownership, clean water...  How do the for systems come to bear on each of these challenges in their respective contexts?  Each becomes a challenge of interaction and balance.  City bike lanes, for example, may require an increase in regulation; but should there also be better manners? (Culture.) Better bikes, helmets and lights? (Technique.) And perhaps even user-fees? (Market)  The art is understanding the balance, productive interactions and potential displacement between each system.

Suddenly, the many interactions between these systems become obvious - in history and our own experience. Both regulation and culture were equally involved in the civil rights and suffrage movements.  We see culture and market interacting in our national economy via local production pride, workmanship, or our savings, buying or credit habits.  Consider how the protestant work ethic developed into the spirit of capitalism - ripples of which are currently evident in the European debt crisis.

Newspaper headlines remind us every day that new techniques present a constant need for new regulations, whether for cyber security, nuclear power, food safety, digital surveillance or Djokovic's "Pod".  Meanwhile the free market, for better or worse, constantly either empowers or denies the proliferation of new techniques, like the fossil-fuel furnace, the automobile, the internet, solar energy, chain saws, robo-trading or the electric car. These techniques may in turn displace or support longstanding cultural practices, for good or for ill! It is now easy to see that all four systems must be considered as equally impactful, and equally deserving of our attention in our political conversations. A one-dimensional right-left axis becomes laughable.

With this new framework in mind we can ask questions like: How do new information and communication technologies impact the role of the family in childhood education, the viability of regional manufacturing, or the health and fitness of Americans?  Might a culture of caring for the elderly at home impact the coming Tsunami of health care costs? How might regulations on certain technologies protect culture that might be valuable in the near future? How might cultural resilience make certain expensive government programs or technologies irrelevant? Are there some techniques that actually protect culture? And what happens to the market if culture boycotts certain technologies in order to reduce the need for increased regulation?

When culture enters the political conversation we can ask: What would happen to our education or health system if it was considered distasteful to watch too much TV, eat junk food or fail to read your child a bedtime story? And would we need to regulate our light bulb industry if we valued (or even aestheticized) true energy conservation? Imagine if it became "American" to use energy only when it was necessary, instead of "always-on" lights, television, idling engines and AC.

What if learning to grow food, reduce waste and live within our means were also part of what it meant to be American?  Would this change our thinking on processed foods, health epidemics and mortgage crises?

None of these are easy questions, but two points stand out:

  1. We must address these questions if we are to move back towards an America that offers the good life to its citizens and hope to the world.

  2. We have no hope of progressing on these issues based on our current one-axis dialog.  We must broaden our conversation to include culture and technique to have any hope of getting anywhere.

Is it time for a “four-party” political system in America?  Could shifting our national discourse to explicitly include this other axis jolt us out of our simplistic and frustrating obsession with our two big ideas?

Imagine a new party advocating “cultural solutions” and another “technical” party added to our existing parties that respectively advocate “regulation” and “free market”.

Cumbersome as this might seem, it would initiate the kind of discourse that Americans desperately need to answer the real problems ahead of us - to talk fully, sincerely and intelligently about our full breadth of ideas, history and aspirations.  It might also allow us to create new hybrid solutions and systemic strategies suitable to the variety of challenges we face. And it would allow us to educate our children in a way that is holistic and integrated, sharing risks and responsibility between families, communities, technologies and the state.

The path we're on will only lead to more fits and tantrums with little hope for national reconciliation or true sportsmanship. Perhaps with a new enriched American discourse our polls on Election Day would become like the stadium at Flushing Meadows during the US Open and overflow with enthusiasm, competition, respect and virtuosity.