By Donella Meadows
–July 21, 1994–
Say there’s something you really want — environmental quality, for example — but you make a compromise. You sacrifice 30 percent in order to get 70 percent.
If you do that twice, you’ve lost half of what you wanted. Do it ten times and you end up with less than 3 percent.
That calculation applies to anything you compromise — the vaccination of children, the budgets of cities, the integrity of government, the fairness of the economy, the rights of citizens.
Which is why the affable Bill Clinton is driving me crazy.
He does care, I assume, about education, health, the common people, nature, human rights. But he’s up against folks who care only about power and the enrichment of themselves and their kind. They don’t know the meaning of compromise. He gives in and gives in and gives in. It’s painful to watch. It’s like sending your home team roaring onto the field, only to have them politely hand the ball to the other side. Over and over.
I used to think I approved of compromise. The president should be president of all the people — or so, in my idealism, I believed. Every side of a political argument contains some truth and a lot of exaggeration. The only way to see the whole picture is to put together all the partial points of view. That’s the wisdom of democracy. So I believed.
I now find, watching a leader who is a compulsive compromiser, that openness to all points of view adds up to vacuousness, unless you combine it with a willingness to throw out nonsense, seek the truth, and take a stand.
A president who promised a veto of anything less than universal health care shouldn’t hint for a moment of settling for 95 percent. He ought to be pointing out constantly, clearly, relentlessly, that our present health care system is so punishingly expensive exactly because it is not universal. Those who say we can’t afford to include the less fortunate are already paying for them — through Medicaid and Medicare, through rising insurance premiums as hospitals load the costs of the uninsured onto the insured, and through emergency admissions for people who don’t get preventive care. The countries that have universal insurance all pay less for health care than we do.
Why do I have to make that argument? Why doesn’t Bill Clinton do so, ringingly, everywhere?
Why hand over any more old-growth trees to logging companies that have already taken all the huge trees from their own land, plus most of what once grew on public land? Old-growth logging will have to stop soon in any case, because the trees will run out. Jobs will be lost now or in a few years. That’s the inevitable consequence of overcutting. The only choice is between saving some of the forest or none of the forest. Nature doesn’t compromise.
Why continue to coddle ranchers who for decades have sent cattle onto public land, paying only a fraction of the market rate for grazing fees? That’s a simple heist of the public treasury, compounded, where there is overgrazing, with a heist of the environment. Just because people talk tough and shoot guns doesn’t mean they have truth on their side. Why not say, loud and clear and often, that it’s time for public property grazers to practice the self-sufficiency and market economics they love to praise?
Why back down without a fight on an energy tax? Why not unleash some presidential thunder against those who would keep the defense industry on welfare, but kick off unmarried mothers? Why settle for bandaids in the name of campaign reform? Why, to please people who want to sell soft drinks and hamburgers, endorse the cynical argument that free trade will help the civil rights of the Chinese people? Why appease the butchers of Bosnia?
Compromise is appropriate when both sides of a dispute are well-meaning and well-behaved, when they bring evidence to prove their points, when they’re honestly seeking a resolution that will promote something more than their private good. But it’s a travesty to compromise truth with lies. Justice shouldn’t be weighed evenly against venality. The helpless shouldn’t be compromised to the powerful. As the old story illustrates — the one about chopping the baby in half in order to placate two claimant mothers — there are some things in this world too precious to compromise.
Pardon me for psychoanalyzing a president without a license, but this president makes it hard to resist. Bill Clinton grew up with an abusive, alcoholic stepfather. Given the ever-present possibility of random violence, a wise child learns to duck, to concede, to deny the promptings of his or her very heart and soul — anything to avoid an outburst. It’s a good survival strategy for a kid. But that kid can grow up to be a people-pleaser, still burying his or her integrity to keep the peace, easy to live with on the surface, simmering underneath.
Back in the glory days of the campaign, the biographical video told us there was one moment when the young Bill Clinton, in defense of his mother, faced up to his drunken stepfather. It’s nice to know he’s got that backbone in him. He should find it again, and use it from time to time. On behalf of all of us, his job is to defend some things that shouldn’t be compromised.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994