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Lessons From The Movies, About Making Choices

by Scott Bittle

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Over the past couple of weeks, Washington has been consumed by choices over taxes and spending: first the furor over the deficit commission report, then over the compromise on the Bush tax cuts. And that got us thinking about the 1993 movie ”Dave".

"Dave" has a durable old plot, about a lookalike who takes the place of the president, and is actually better at it than the real one. In one famous scene, Dave stares down the Cabinet over cutting a marketing campaign in order to save funding for a program helping homeless children.

In the real world, however, we're not always faced with such clear choices between what's moral and valuable and what's not. The fact is that despite Americans' skepticism of government, most of the federal government's money goes to programs that people actually support and depend on. The tough part comes when we have to make choices between different things that are all valuable.

Overall, the American political system does a pretty bad job of helping the public work through its options. All of Public Agenda's work shows that the public really can cope with complicated decisions, given the right circumstances. But the public has a "learning curve" on problems, and it takes time for them to "work through" a question and come to solid conclusions.

But there are a lot of potential barriers to that process. Hyperpartisanship, mistrust, wishful thinking and a host of other factors work against people as they try to come to considered judgments.

The federal budget, energy, education: these are just a few of the complicated problems that can't be solved without an engaged public. And to get that engaged public, we've got to get better at considering our options as a nation. Because, unlike in "Dave," not all the choices are going to be easy.

Click here to see the full version of this story at, join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, and keep up with the latest deficit and national debt proposals and maneuvers with Fiscal Future Daily (on holiday break now, and back in business on January 3).


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