How Partisanship Puts Big Solutions Out Of Reach

From tort reform to Medicare, answers lie in the practical center

For nearly all of U.S. history, American political life has been sharply polarized. For two centuries deep ideological divisions have split U.S. society. Yet each era also bred advocates for pragmatism who pushed back against partisan extremism to seek common ground.

By necessity, a frontier culture populated by immigrants who had to work together often chose practicality and common sense over dogma. America needs to make the same choice today in the battle over the tort system.

It's only one of many fights being waged almost entirely in political rather than more practical terms. Social Security, Medicare, global warming, education -- all critical issues -- are debated with junk facts marshaled and marketed by one side or the other, with the best possible solutions all the more difficult to discern. Even universities -- centers for research and learning -- increasingly hew to a political correctness that refuses to respect ideas that veer from political orthodoxy.

America needs a nonpartisan space where numbers can be trusted, arguments can't be bought and sold, and all possible solutions and outcomes can be considered. That space doesn't exist in today's tort debate. There is little question that doctors and executives feel plagued by plaintiffs' lawyers who haul them into court again and again. Yet there are no reliable data showing that this amounts to a serious threat to the economy.

The latest Bureau of Economic Analysis statistics show legal services accounting for less than 1.5% of gross domestic product, a lower share than in 1990. The "litigation tax" of $246 billion that the anti-plaintiffs'-lawyer lobby says is imposed on the economy is in fact a number that includes everything from payouts for fender-benders to the salaries of insurance industry CEOs. It's a wild exaggeration.

Meanwhile, with no real data available on medical-malpractice payouts, the Physician Insurers Assn. says the average size of those awards is $350,000, while the Consumer Federation calculates it to be as low as $30,000. Professors called as expert witnesses are often consultants to plaintiffs' lawyers or their organizations, while conservative institutes have their own experts on the payroll. Where are the facts?

And where are the facts in the debate over the Medicare drug benefit? Yes, many seniors complain about the high and still-rising cost of drugs. But there are no numbers showing patients can't afford to buy them. Indeed, there are figures that indicate that most seniors are already covered by insurance or have sufficient income and assets to buy their medicines with no government help required. A plan that should have focused on the elderly poor became a huge middle-class benefit costing twice initial estimates and carrying unfunded liabilities three times that of Social Security. Why? The numbers used in the public discussion were politicized.

AARP, the lobbying group for retirees, hyped the drug-expense issue. Drugmakers, which stood to gain financially from the bill, lobbied for it, too. And the GOP White House and Congress obfuscated the real cost and funding-liability figures. Is this the best way to forge public policy?

The same can be said for Social Security. There are many advantages to private accounts owned by individuals. But they have little to do with fixing Social Security's solvency problem. That would require lower benefits or higher taxes. And the very idea that Social Security even faces a crisis is not supported by the numbers.

If no action is taken, retirees will still get 73% of their benefits in 2042 (or 2052, according to the Congressional Budget Office). That's a problem, but it's not an emergency. Yet no one is listening. Liberals won't acknowledge that private accounts have any merit, and conservatives won't admit that Social Security needs only modest tinkering.

Today, Americans learn partisanship early. They observe a news media increasingly split between Right and Left. And students at many top Ivy League and state universities are educated by partisan faculties who see the world ideologically. Many professors teach a postmodern relativism, arguing that there are no objective facts, only what is seen through the lenses of class, gender, and power. No wonder twenty- and thirtysomethings seek an echo chamber of their own beliefs on blogs, Web sites, and TV. They're taught to distrust the possibility of common ground, a community of interests, and shared values.

Corporate America can ill afford this polarization. Offering support to partisans in Washington on social policy creates the risk of a strong backlash when power changes hands, as it inevitably does. Companies operate best in a pragmatic environment. And America operates best from the practical center. It is time to find our way back there.

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