Thinking and the federal deficit mat be two concepts that won’t often appear together – and from the public discourse one could say mutually exclusive – but if we get to the heart of the matter, both concepts are in critical need of being tied together. The days of believing we can simply throw more money at a social or economic issue are over.

In my Scribd paper, The American Republic, I discuss the need for more engagement with our political system, but that engagement must come from an informed opinion. Informed = Education = Thinking. Dr. Derek Cabrera, of the Cabrera Research Labs at Cornell, mentions this critical aspect of maintaining a democracy in his TED talk at Williamsport on thinking.

While I confess I have little patience watching many video links that come my way, Cabrera bursts out of the gate on this one… he has to, since TED speakers have a very strict time limit in which to give a presentation.

It seems most students of epistemology swing from either calling for the teaching of a discipline’s strict frameworks to something completely opposite, along the lines of “Let your inner thinker bloom.” Both approaches, taken in a singular fashion, drive me nuts. I still believe existing frameworks must be taught, for how else is a student to learn why human history has brought us to these shores? At the same time, we must move beyond rote memorization (Cabrera: “good at school”), providing students the abilities to tackle tough, open-ended assignments.

I have long recognized that the best creativity (“open-endedness”) emerges from restrictions, i.e., frameworks or boundedness. This creativity can be incremental (an addition within a framework), or it can vault over a framework and quickly take us to  completely, or almost completely, new territory. In either case, the creativity emerges from restriction.

I can remember, from my marketing days, having meetings over the best way to approach a proposal, particularly for a new client. We were not indoctrinated with the culture of the client’s corporation, giving us an advantage for freshness (i.e., creativity), but neither were we thoroughly steeped in what the client’s corporation had to deal with on a practical basis (the boundedness).

Often times, the early meetings left me uncomfortable, as those from our creative departments (writers and artists) would run wild with ideas that were not attached to the client’s realities. The thinking was unbounded, and conventional wisdom stated we needed that. But if I left that meeting feeling queasy, I would get back on the phone and start talking with our potential client at length about what kept him or her up at night. The boundaries started to appear, and the answers required provided far more difficulties than anyone imagined.

I would then call a subsequent meeting, this time with the boundaries in place: Blank stares. Tepid responses. Nothing.

Stepping back, I would call off the meeting quickly, and let the restrictions marinate for a few days (if we had the luxury of time). Another meeting. Bam. The ideas flowed, and this time they were hitched to meaningful solutions that captured our potential client’s imagination and often won the business.

But three meetings to get from A to B? In my mind, the jury is still out on that criticism. At times that first meeting generated ideas that, slightly altered, were workable and ended up in the proposal. At other times, nothing of value came of it. Such meetings as I just described in the latter were sometimes the fault of the client (who would neglect to pass along relevant information), and at other times it was our fault for not doing our homework thoroughly, thus failing to ask the right questions up front.

The whole point of this long-winded reminiscing is that the best thinking on public policy should act in the same manner, by addressing economic and social issues based on real restrictions (boundedness) coupled with creative approaches (unboundedness) that go beyond the tired bromide of “throw enough money at the problem and it will eventually go away.” We no longer have the luxury of throwing more tax revenues at problems, yet we’re running out of thinking skills at the same time, a dangerous combination.

In this time of heated debate over the federal deficit, if we could rely on independent, objective sources (does such a thing exist in politics?) to gather on-the-ground research on the various federal programs funded by tax revenues, we could avoid the sledgehammer approach to budgeting now used in D.C. There should be, hopefully, some programs that truly are effective in their missions, others that show signs of hope but are being strangled by the means dictated to carry out their missions, and others that, well, should die a dignified death.

All too often we create federal programs to address various social and economic ills, only to find that regardless of a program’s effectiveness, a protected fiefdom has been created. Those who are in charge will always find ways to justify the continuance of a program, irregardless of outcomes. And while reviewing financials will always be necessary, qualitative research in the field should include the constituency, the recipients of the assistance a given program is meant to provide, and seek answers to this meta-question: Are you benefiting from this program? (For more on this, see this Scribd paper on the well-formed argument.)

Unfortunately, the schools of public policy in the U.S. do not teach public-policy frameworks that come anywhere close to the approach we used in developing proposals (I’m primarily addressing the qualitative side of the approach here, not a call for more spin doctoring, i.e., marketing).

Perhaps right now we need a healthy shot of unboundedness in our legislative process… and in our public policy programs.