Skilled negotiators know that you can’t always get all of what you want at once. In many cases, finding your way to ultimate goals requires a series of smaller agreements that help to build trust, create good feelings, and get positive momentum started. These are sometimes referred to as “confidence-building measures.”
Smaller partial agreements often pave the way toward the larger and more comprehensive deals you are after. Creating a comfortable familiarity and establishing the habit of saying “yes” to each other can be most helpful. A long string of concurrences, even over relatively small matters, builds forward motion toward greater and greater agreements. Furthermore, the natural guardedness that typically separates negotiators who are not yet well acquainted must somehow be overcome. How better than to get know each other through a succession of accords, cooperation, and general yeses that create a strong feeling of working together successfully?
The best negotiators set things up to occur just this way. Like a children’s scavenger hunt, they lay down a path of easily-discovered agreements that create the kind of positive momentum likely to lead to greater collaboration. History offers world-altering examples such as the series of confidence-building measures that led up to major nuclear arms limitations treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union. In our own neighborhoods, though, we find similar principles at play. Dating rituals follow similar patterns; a successful outing to the movies leads to a dinner the following week. The process works its way toward going steady, getting serious and becoming engaged. The besotted young adults, like the Americans and Soviets, work their way through a long process of building trust before they are ready to march arm-in-arm to the altar.
Perhaps such a “small steps” approach could help us progress beyond current dissatisfaction with the Affordable Care Act that so many refer to as “Obamacare.” In a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman referred to the program as “an immense kludge — a clumsy, ugly structure that more or less deals with a problem, but in an inefficient way.” Surely, a less expensive, more straightforward and clear-cut system that has been proven to work would appeal to all concerned. And, while less consensual, a major goal of such a system should be solid coverage for everyone. Could policymakers build a series of small steps to build confidence while moving us in that direction?
The United States does not want for a healthcare system that is proven, clear-cut, reasonably efficient, and holds the promise of significant cost reductions. It has one called Medicare. The problem, of course, is that coverage is only offered to senior citizens. Moving swiftly to cover everyone under the Medicare program, though, is considered too drastic to attract overwhelming political support. What if we moved in that direction gradually, through a series of smaller steps?
While continuing to implement the Affordable Care Act, Congress could take initial steps to lower the eligibility age for enrollment in Medicare. For example, the minimum age for Medicare coverage might be brought down to 60 years old next year with the intention of dropping it to 55 in two years. Thereafter, it could be lowered annually. Over time, the system called “an immense kludge” would be phased out as more and more people were added to the Medicare rolls. The end result would appeal to those who seek universal coverage, people who want cost controls, and folks favoring a less clunky or “kludgy” system. Even politicians who oppose Obamacare for its complexity and mandates would, if they are sincere, welcome the change.
A gradual transition achieved by a number of relatively small changes to expand Medicare coverage might be the way to move forward. It offers the possibility of compromise while addressing one of our biggest societal problems. Furthermore, it holds the promise of a gradual march built upon a platform of confidence-building smaller agreements. Congress and the president could begin this process now, since nothing earth shaking or deeply controversial need be addressed in the initial agreements.
I well know that this proposal is not as politically easy or straightforward as I seem to suggest. Nor is the decision to cover even one extra person under Medicare without controversy or opposition. Nevertheless, one can have a quiet confidence in this path. The goals of universal coverage, more cost control, and a workable and proven system hold overwhelming appeal. Any true patriot who puts the national wellbeing above partisan political concerns should find irresistible the opportunity for working together to surmount a grave national deadlock. Even the angriest and most uncompromising of our national leaders will join hands to move in such a positive direction when again they are touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.