Watching an episode from Season 4 of West Wing, I’m struck by how almost 10 years ago, the show was foreshadowing the partisanship dysfunction that we find ourselves in today. They talked about how impossible it was to get anything done with a Democratic President and a Republican Congress that hated him, but even then it wasn’t portrayed anywhere nearly as badly as the situation today.
Today, we’re stuck in a paradigm where it’s all about winning and losing, us versus them, with very little hint of trying to come up with solutions that work for almost everyone, solutions that actually change the system for the better in a meaningful way. Even if there is some compromise, some sense of positive change, it always seems justified (or driven) by political points.
Is it naïve or fanciful to think we can change this? To think we can work on improving government policy so that it benefits the most people, collaborate towards systemic win-win solutions?
A commentator I heard on NPR recently suggests that we got what we asked for by electing a Congress that is something like 40+% lawyers. These people are trained to fight, to win over the other guy. And legislative politics is set up like a battle, mostly a battle of money, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see the partisanship get worse, to see how Congress and legislatures get less and less real positive change accomplished.
I see a similar thing in the regulatory realm, at the Public Utilities Commission, because there too, the system is structured for fighting. Activities there are set up like court cases and participating is even called “litigating’. So again, much of it becomes a battle of lawyers and resources.
Since I’m not a lawyer, and look to solve problems from an engineer’s system-thinking viewpoint, I feel like we can do better, that if we put people in to the right structures and incentives, we could actually sit down together in a constructive conversation. I can imagine facilitating such conversations with the people I’ve found in the industry (even some lawyers) who genuinely get the idea that their “winning” today on an issue isn’t actually what is best for society in the long-run.
Starting in a small, targeted way, I’d like to get such a conversation going in a specific energy policy topic in California. It could be any of a number of hot topics from DG, grid reliability or smart grid, to long-term renewables targets, CCA’s or energy efficiency. We would just need all the players to recognize that the current system of PUC proceedings, CEC workshops, Legislative hearings, etc isn’t working. Then we’d need a funder, such as the Energy Foundation to see the need and take a risk by funding a group like the Clean Coalition to make such a conversation happen.
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