Northwestern University
Dean Blount's Blog


Whither Washington?
July 26, 2011

Let’s be honest—the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling is not really a deadline. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in Washington is going to allow the U.S. government to shut down. This is about both sides using this moment, this punctuation point in time, to gain legislative advantage.

Now the unfortunate fact is that not much good will likely come of this moment. It’s pretty clear that the only sensible way out of the current financial showdown is to raise taxes and decrease spending over the next several years. (Teresa Tritch’s editorial in Sunday’s New York Times presents a pithy and compelling summary, and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation website features a vast amount of data on this issue.) Neither of these actions will ingratiate legislators with a wide array of voting and lobbying blocs, so rationally they will continue to resist and engage in contorted negotiations in an effort to gain whatever political advantage they can.

Partisan negotiating

For anyone who has studied negotiations in organizations in any depth, it’s clear that the organizational structures, prevailing culture and job incentives that now make up our political process are not effective. With a public stage always ripe for grandstanding, an embedded culture of partisanship, and a lack of clarity regarding facts versus opinions in debate, the strategies for effective negotiations that we know work are just not possible here.

It’s difficult to witness this kind of intractability, partisanship and poor decision-making on public display. Our own Daniel Diermeier reflected thoughtfully on this subject in his recent Kellogg Insight article about Ballooning Budgets, as did Adam Galinsky, who recently commented on NPR that there’s a lot of “poker playing” going on. As the Financial Trust Index, which is co-authored by Paola Sapienza, shows, nearly half of all Americans have simply chosen not to engage with what’s going on.

Outmoded organizing

As I reflect, it seems that our political infrastructure is becoming outmoded. It is not well-adapted to the complex 21st century global environment. While we appear to have shown some agility in making it through 2008 without more damage, I can’t help but wonder if, at some point, we will need to consider serious restructuring. Yet, as a social scientist, I am aware that we are far away from the political and economic conditions that would trigger that kind of social change (perhaps thankfully so).

So instead I am left reflecting on the fallibilities of human organizing. So far, the most successful corporations have not lasted as long as the most successful governmental, religious, and educational institutions, which are not typically known as bastions of innovation. But the modern corporation is still young, we are only 150 years past the industrial revolution, and the things that companies like Apple and Google can do are truly impressive. So clearly there’s more to come in the annals of human development…no matter what, the current drama in Washington reminds us that we (humanity) still have much to learn and teach about building effective organizations.

I welcome your comments, feedback and ideas at

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