Breaking the “Fiscal Cliff” Gridlock without Compromising the Principles of Either Side

10 Nov

The “fiscal cliff” crisis is here. Wouldn’t it be great if the White House and Congress could solve this crisis together, without having to compromise the principles of either side?

Sound impossible? Not really; engineers achieve such magic all the time. Here’s how.

How to Make Effective Decisions

Engineers are exceptionally successful in providing solutions to problems. As discussed here, this is not because engineers are smarter than everyone else, it’s because they have a review system that drives out bad ideas. Proposed solutions are based on research and careful analysis, not emotion. Also, proposed solutions are mercilessly critiqued by a panel of senior experienced engineers, following which the best solution is selected.

But the process does not end there. Engineers realize that, despite their best efforts, a selected solution might not work as predicted, so they rigorously test it. If it meets expectations, they keep it. If it doesn’t, it’s tossed aside and the next-best proposal is then evaluated. This process of critique, select, and test continues until the desired results are achieved.

Why Compromise Is Bad

Compromise distorts the learning process. If a selected solution were allowed to be a combination of various ideas, this would muddy the waters such that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine which ideas had the best, and worst, effects on the results. It is therefore better to select a single clear and uncluttered idea. When the idea is tested, it will quickly become obvious whether or not the idea is a good one.

Avoiding the Fiscal Cliff: Don’t Compromise, Compete

I recommend that the House majority make this offer to the Obama administration:

The Administration will provide the House with a proposal containing the Administration’s wish list for economic measures to solve the fiscal crisis. The House will vote to approve those measures, without watering them down, or compromising them in any way, in return for the following understanding (as defined in the related legislation):

  1. Clear and uncontroversial metrics will be used to measure progress (e.g. unemployment rate and national debt).
  2. If, by the end of one fiscal quarter, the metrics are trending in a favorable direction (e.g. unemployment rate and debt are both less than at the beginning of the quarter), then the measures will be automatically extended for an additional quarter.
  3. If, by the end of one fiscal quarter, any metric is trending in an unfavorable direction (e.g. unemployment rate or debt are higher than at the beginning of the quarter) then the measures will be automatically terminated and replaced with alternate measures as defined by the House in the initial legislation. The alternate measures will be evaluated by the same metrics.
  4. The process will continue on a quarterly basis, with measures that are trending positive automatically renewed.
  5. If neither set of measures proves to be effective, then new proposals will be provided by the Administration and the House, and the process will start anew.

The advantages of the above approach are many, including:

  1. Breaks gridlock without compromising either side’s principles.
  2. Proposed measures get an unfettered, full, and fair trial.
  3. Evaluation of measures is simple (things get better or they don’t), yielding conclusions that are clear and unarguable.
  4. Requires positive results, or the other side gets a turn at bat.
  5. Short but reasonable quarterly evaluation periods promote rapid progress.
  6. Competition between clearly defined and unobstructed ideas will engage and inform the American people.

Adopting a competitive results-oriented approach to solving the fiscal cliff crisis will require Congress and the Administration to break with their ingrained habits. Indeed, some politicians may prefer to grasp their buggy whips tightly as they continue to flog the old tired horse of ineffective bickering and counterproductive compromise. That would be unfortunate, because the American people deserve better.

Isn’t it time for our government to adopt the highly successful methods used routinely by engineering firms?

-Ed Walker

p.s. If you care to send the link ( of this post to your congressional representative, you can find their name by zip code here:



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5 responses to “Breaking the “Fiscal Cliff” Gridlock without Compromising the Principles of Either Side

  1. David Farrar

    November 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Speaking of ‘Engineering Thinking’: the only thing I see missing here is a request to pass this message on to our US House Reps. and an easy link to a “Find Your House Rep” button*.

    ex animo
    * Assuming free access to reprint is granted and also noticed

    • engineeringthinking

      November 10, 2012 at 6:25 pm

      Thanks, I will add.

  2. Chef Joy

    November 13, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    A sound and structured plan built on objectivity. Godspeed with the dissemination!

  3. Kiran Garimella

    January 5, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    This will never happen because the issue isn’t that politicians don’t like solutions or that they are dumb (contrary to popular opinion, politicians are quite smart).

    The issue is one of values and subscription to the underlying economic theory. Democrats subscribe to Keynesian economics; the metrics and their underlying trends that you propose will not automatically dictate a course of action. Debt may be increasing, they’ll agree, but so what?

    Republicans have a healthier economic philosophy (but a terrible foreign policy and disastrous religious fundamentalism, but those are different topics).

    Both parties will bicker to the end on how to define the metrics, what data to collect and exclude, their significance in the equations, etc. Statistics can be misused in more ways than it can be used correctly (see, for example, Darrell Huff’s ‘How to Lie with Statistics’).

    Engineers and scientists, on the other hand, have uncontrovertial standards by which their metrics and processes can be judged – and that is, physical reality itself. That’s why it is easy for an engineer to propose these measures and decision procedure that, at the end, completely miss the point. The battle is one of values, not of facts or a rational process for making decisions.

    • engineeringthinking

      January 5, 2013 at 8:28 pm

      Thanks for your comments.

      I understand your concern with values, but I take exception to your statement that the post “misses the point.” The point is that the engineering peer review process would provide a superior process compared to the present one, typically driven by emotion and unthinking ideology. Watching Congress operate is like watching an old western movie, with horses trotting down dirt trails between rickety store fronts, where disputes are settled by macho shoot-outs; i.e. ridiculously archaic.

      Also, I don’t believe that I implied anywhere that politicians were stupid. It’s just that the large majority of politicians have no background in science, and have limited exposure to the critical thinking process. (You may recall a state legislature passing a law that declared Pi was to be changed to 3 to make calculations easier.) The point of the blog was to offer an example of how the everyday science-based peer review process — the one that is responsible for much of the comforts on this earth — could be applied to an important policy issue.


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