A working group of policy experts from left and right just released a major report on how America can best reduce poverty and increase opportunity. Here’s the back story of how the unusual collaboration began, and what lessons might help other politically diverse groups of experts work together.

In 2012, during the run-up to the US Presidential election, I was getting more and more dismayed by America’s rising political polarization. I gave a TED talk titled How Common Threats Make Common Ground in which I presented the idea for “The Asteroids Club” – a group of politically diverse people who would agree to listen to each other and try to understand what the other side was so upset about.

The metaphor was that American political life consists of each side pointing to real threats, real asteroids hurtling toward the Earth, but neither side is willing to turn its head for a moment to look at the other side’s perceived asteroid. If we could at least acknowledge that the other side’s concerns are valid, maybe we could help each other deflect our asteroids.

asteroidsclub

I had conceived the metaphor with Steve Seibert, a board member of the wonderful civic organization The Village Square, in Tallahassee. Liz Joyner, the executive director, thought we should turn it into a real project, which she did – you can learn how to run your own cross-partisan discussions at www.AsteroidsClub.org.

Over the course of the next year, the American political situation deteriorated still further. During the government shutdown of 2013, I happened to meet Simon Greer, who was then the president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Simon wanted the foundation to focus on global warming and inequality and he asked my advice about how to persuade conservatives. I told him that if he really wanted to make a difference, he shouldn’t try to change conservatives, he should enter into dialogue with them and listen to what they had to say. I told him about The Asteroids Club. Simon loved the idea, and we decided to host a dinner in his apartment for policy experts and journalists that would try the Asteroids Club format. It involves each side making a pitch for its top concern. The other side doesn’t debate the pitch, although it can ask questions.

At the dinner, the left presented the “asteroid” of rising inequality, and the right presented the “asteroid” of declining marriage rates and declining family stability. These two asteroids make a great pair because one cause of rising inequality is the growing marriage gap between rich and poor.

We made only a little bit of progress at that dinner (which you can read about here), but we made two important discoveries. The first was that EVERYONE cared about reducing poverty, particularly child poverty, and we ALL cared about increasing opportunity for the poor. The second discovery was that it was actually a lot of fun to talk across the partisan divide, when it is done informally, in private, over a meal, with a lot of wine.

We decided to keep the group going and to refocus it on poverty and opportunity. My NYU colleague Larry Aber became the captain of the progressive team. Ron Haskins became captain of the conservative team. Ron got us sponsorship from The Brookings institution, and another member – Robert Doar (formerly in charge of welfare policies for Mayor Bloomberg of New York City) –got us sponsorship from the American Enterprise Institute.  I agreed to stay on as the moderator. (I am a non-partisan centrist). We then expanded the membership, inviting many of the nation’s top experts on poverty to join us, until we had a balanced group of 16 members. We came together five times over the course of 14 months, for full day meetings. Along the way, we got additional financial support from the Annie E. Casey foundation, and from the Ford foundation.

We began by trying to agree on the basic facts. Ron Haskins wrote up a masterful summary, which was then vetted and edited by both sides. Facts have become politicized; each side has its own facts, which is a common feature of “wicked problems.” But chapter 2 of our report cuts through the politics and offers what I think is the most reliable guide available anywhere to the real facts about poverty in America today. If you really want to know the facts about poverty, and if you want some new insights into why inequality is increasing, please read chapter 2.

As we continued to talk, we realized that our report had to address many topics at once, but it could not address every possible topic. We quickly settled on three major topics that were tightly intertwined: family, work, and education. We assigned pairs of experts to draft those chapters, one expert from each side, and we debated and improved each of these chapters, as a group.

The final report offers plenty of ideas to make each side uncomfortable. We strongly endorsed marriage (which the left has long been unwilling to do), and birth control (which the right has been unwilling to do) in order to slow the “drift” into single parenthood that is increasingly common. We realized that we had to reverse the trend in which men with low education are increasingly dropping out of the workforce, so we endorsed raising the earned income tax credit for people who do not have children (a move both sides support); raising the minimum wage (which many on the right oppose) while at the same time granting that a work-based safety net is effective and should be extended, as the right has long wanted to do (as long as new work requirements are paired with efforts to guarantee that some kind of work is available, and that food stamps are available as a last resort).

How we did it

There were some tense times, and some of these compromises were difficult for some members to make.  So how did we do it? How did we get everyone to sign? There are three keys. The first two are the two basic recommendations made by CivilPolitics.org: 1) Improve relationships, and 2) Emphasize cooperative goals rather than competitive goals.

1) Improve relationships. We were lucky in that many of our experts knew each other already, and some had worked together before. In fact, it was when I observed the joking relationship between Haskins and Aber – which involved trading light-hearted insults – that I decided it was worth investing my own time in this long project. A cross-partisan friendship is a strong foundation upon which to build a cross-partisan group. We tried to strengthen interpersonal bonds by eating and drinking together, assigning cross-partisan pairs to draft each chapter, and letting time work its magic. Over the course of 14 months jointly pursuing a common project, we all got to know each other and like each other more and more.

2) Emphasize cooperative goals rather than competitive goals. We were trying to do something really big – write a consensus report about contentious topics. In our early meetings we had some sense that we were two separate teams who would eventually have to engage in some real negotiations. Competition breeds a zero-sum mindset. But over time our cooperative goals loomed larger and larger: could we get past this hurdle or that? Could we reach agreement on the basic facts so that we can move on to the central chapters on family, work, and education? Will we get this report written before the end of the year? How are we going to publicize it? Over time, we felt more and more like we were on the same team. A peak moment for me was at our fourth meeting (out of 5), when our list of 12 recommendations came clearly into view for the first time, and I thought the two sides needed to separate for a half hour to “caucus” – to decide if they could really endorse the emergent package of proposals. But the members rejected my suggestion – they did not want to separate into two teams. They wanted to just keep going as one group, discussing the whole project together.

3) A third key to our success is that we identified shared values: opportunity, responsibility, and security. Left and right have different theories about what causes poverty, but it turns out that they have several values in common that can serve as the moral grounding of public policy. Nearly all Americans agree that America should be the land of opportunity; public policy should increase opportunities, especially for the poor. Nearly all Americans agree that people should take personal responsibility for themselves, their actions, and their children, so public policy should strengthen their ability to do so, rather than undercutting it. Nearly all Americans agree that in a capitalist system marked by “creative destruction” and constant change, it is essential to give people some sense of security, some insurance against the vicissitudes of life. Once we identified these widely shared values, it became much easier for us to reach agreement and write our report.

Our group was unusual — it included many of the most brilliant scholars studying poverty today, and they all shared a commitment to empirical evidence, rather than to any partisan agenda. That narrowed the range of beliefs and disagreements in the group. Yet still, I think the success of the project holds some lessons for other bipartisan or politically diverse groups, and that’s why I wrote this post and published it at Heterodox Academy.

I just want to close with a personal observation, as the moderator: I was somewhat nervous at our first two meetings. I had never done anything like this before, and I was frantically trying to read books on how to facilitate difficult discussions, while also reading the voluminous writings of our members. But once the group began to “gel,” around the time of our third meeting, the whole process became a lot of fun. We loosened up and became better able to joke around and tease each other. We developed norms of civil debate and disagreement. We treated each other with respect at all times. And we could feel ourselves getting smarter as a group, as we worked our way through complicated research literatures and developed a new and coherent story about poverty and how to alleviate it.

Political diversity makes groups smarter. John Stuart Mill said that back in 1840 when he noted that in most political controversies,

both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied, and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.

As America grows increasingly polarized, our ability to solve complex problems declines. We need each other to make our doctrines correct.


Links about the report:

Members of the working group:

  • Lawrence Aber, Willner Family Professor of Psychology and Public Policy, New York University
  • Stuart Butler, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies, Brookings Institution
  • Sheldon Danziger, President, Russell Sage Foundation
  • Robert Doar, Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies, American Enterprise Institute
  • David T. Ellwood, Scott M. Black Professor of Political Economy, Harvard University
  • Judith M. Gueron, President Emerita, MDRC
  • Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership, New York University
  • Ron Haskins, Cabot Family Chair of Economic Studies, Brookings Institution
  • Harry J. Holzer, Professor of Public Policy, Georgetown University
  • Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
  • Lawrence Mead, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, New York University
  • Ronald Mincy, Professor of Social Work, Columbia University
  • Richard V. Reeves. Senior Fellow in Economic Studies, Brookings Institution
  • Michael R. Strain, Deputy Director of Economic Policy Studies and Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute
  • Jane Waldfogel, Compton Foundation Centennial Professor for the Prevention of Children and Youth Problems, Columbia University