Five correct answers to every problem

As the 2020 election winds to a close, perhaps we should consider the wise counsel offered by the late Ralph Regula, whose long and impartial service to the state made him our congressman for all Ohio. Ralph could often be heard to say that the job of Congress was “an exercise in hard choices” — which he used when explaining to his constituents why the suggestions they lobbied him about were not as easily implemented as they thought they should be.

His phrase — an exercise in hard choices — also needs to be explored in more detail because most political arguments are fraught not just with partisanship but with an overly simplistic analysis of the issues at hand. Indeed, whether it is the environment, civil rights, abortion, or the economy, among many issues, reality encompasses far more than is often voiced by those speaking most loudly for or against an issue. Sound bites rarely capture the full dimensions of any issue.

Thus, in keeping with Ralph’s phrase, and as a further measure of nuancing any argument, I offer for your consideration the advice of a seasoned Washington public servant, Charles Huettner, whose last assignment at the White House was as executive director of the President’s Commission on the Future of the Aerospace Industry. His many years of service led Charlie to conclude that any problem presented to government, business, or anyone for that matter, has at least five correct answers.

How can that be? Five correct answers to any problem? Charlie summarizes this with the acronym POETS. For example, every issue in Washington first has a Political answer. Any political answer is correct if you have the requisite number of votes on your side. Of course, that answer must then be implemented, and the Operational steps needed to accomplish the proposed solution can often be complex, involving several agencies or departments, not all of which may agree with the process.

Third, what are the Economic resources needed, or budgetary consequences of that implementation; what does it cost? Something that sounds great in principle may be too costly in itself, or there may be competing funding priorities that outweigh its level of importance.

Fourth is the Technical answer: Are there the requisite technical resources/expertise to enable the proposal to be implemented? What are the degrees of certainty/uncertainty in deploying those technical resources to solve this particular problem? And what may be the unintended consequences of using that technology for this problem? Will today’s solution become tomorrow’s problem?

Finally, there is the Societal answer: How will the public react to the proposed approach?

In short, every issue has its political, operational, economic, technical and societal (POETS) components. Each of these answers can be correct, but each will be perceived as right or wrong by some group or another.

The 2020 election has been no different. Indeed, we saw many examples in the debates and in the press that when issues are viewed too simplistically, or from only one perspective, our capacity for fuller understanding is diminished and pointless arguments ensue. The blame game seldom leads to better understanding. Reason and calm can, and should, prevail in our public discourse.

Perhaps you already love poetry and appreciate the nuances it can illuminate. But even if you don’t, knowing about an exercise in hard choices and POETS can help you and your colleagues better frame issues and work more reasonably toward the common good. Anything worth doing is, understandably, an exercise in hard choices. Ralph would be smiling.

Luis M. Proenza  is President Emeritus of The University of Akron