Stuck in the Blame Game

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The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Come on, Pop, read us a book!” said Cooper as he patted the seat beside him on the couch. There are some voices, requests, and moments to which there is no denial. Taking the seat offered, I was immediately compressed into a tight reading cocoon as Reagan and Cooper crowded upon me to listen to this evening’s book. Apparently, it is possible to project oneself into a story by means of extremely close proximity.

Tonight’s story? The Berenstain Bears and the Blame Game. In this classic, we follow along as Mama Bear gets frustrated with Brother and Sister Bear for constantly blaming one another for everything. “He started it!” “No, she started it!” When the sound of breaking glass draws Mama Bear into the room, the latest round of blame pushes Mama Bear to anger. Papa Bear shows up on the scene with some sage advice: “Instead of playing the blame game, why don’t we just go to work and solve the problem?”

Of course, a broken window just moments later elicits Papa Bear’s frustration and Mama Bear shows up calmly: “Instead of shouting and pointing fingers, we should get to work and solve the problem.” After all is made right, Papa Bear summarizes the lesson by saying “Of course, there are times…when somebody really is to blame for something. But most of the time, it’s important to remember there’s usually enough blame to go around.”

Our Propensity to Blame Someone Else

One of many great examples of the “blame game” present in the United States (and there are many, many great examples) centers on intense debates over our healthcare system. A quick perusal of headlines reveals an array of finger pointing over escalating costs, lack of access, and poor outcomes. Employers blame hospitals. Hospitals blame insurers. Insurers blame hospitals. Pharmacies blame pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). PBMs blame pharmaceutical manufacturers. Pharmaceutical manufacturers blame PBMs. Depending on their constituency and timing, politicians blame everyone. The government is begged, lobbied, praised, and vilified in unequal parts throughout all of the above.

Forgive the gross oversimplification but the point remains: we see a problem, there is no easy or obvious solution, so the blame game begins. Perhaps we need to deconstruct “blame” a bit further by asking a simple question: Why do we blame someone else?

Brother Bear says “It wasn’t me, it was her.” Sister Bear says, “It was not, he started it.” Each was trying to shift responsibility for a problem to the other. Why? Neither one wanted to “get in trouble.” Whoever is responsible, will likely be punished; and nobody wants to be punished. With responsibility comes consequence. Ultimately, blaming is about avoiding, or shifting, responsibility and its consequences.

Blame Unleashed

When does blaming occur? We may silently blame someone to assuage our conscience or rationalize misfortune, but, generally, blaming goes public when we are appealing to a higher authority. The American legal system is built upon the blame game. From very early-on, we are trained that, when it comes to legal justice, there is no absolute but only what you argue. If you can prove your blame through argument, you can “win” by being judged to be more right than your opponent.

Brother and Sister Bear appeal quite vigorously to Mama and Papa Bear to make their individual cases. Because there is no proof to support their cases, they resort to yelling more loudly to try to drown out the other’s voice. The higher authority of their parents brings on the possibility of being punished or avoiding it. Now, there is real value in avoiding responsibility.

Let’s return to the healthcare blame game for a moment. Aside from the public relations assault we see in the headlines, there are very real arguments being heard in courts, legislatures, and the offices of politicians and regulators, regarding practices, policies, and blame. “He did it.” “No I didn’t.” “It’s her fault.” “No it’s not.” After enough blaming goes on, we start to shift toward the answer we want. “We need a law.” “They should pay.” “He should go to jail.” “She should be put out of business.”

We blame in our attempt to appeal to a higher authority with the intent to avoid or shift responsibility because the consequences can be costly.

Necessary and Problematic

Brother and Sister Bear recognize that something has gone wrong and that the higher authority of Mama and Papa Bear will exercise judgment over their mistakes. Pleading their individual cases is necessary because neither one wants to pay the price of responsibility for the broken vase or window.

From a legal and regulatory point of view, our system of blame and appeal is necessary as issues can become very complex, making one single truth difficult to identify. Our system is built on negotiation and arbitration because there is often not a single answer but the necessity of a compromise. The option to compromise gives our system flexibility and nuance.

The problem with the blame game in its appeal to higher authorities is that it puts energy and focus on making the case rather than solving the problem. When we center our efforts on proving or disproving the argument, we lose the opportunity to clean up the bigger mess.

The Bigger Mess

Papa Bear appears on the scene with a calm suggestion to stop the argument and start the cleanup. He is not concerned with punishment or individual responsibility. His simple answer: “Usually, there’s enough blame to go around.” So, we might as well get busy working on the solution.

In our healthcare example, the spinning circle of blame is massive. The stakes are incredibly high. There is tremendous incentive to play the game because of the upside potential for winners and downside risk for losers. Lawyer, regulators, CEOs, systems, communities, politicians, shareholders, and on and on and on – all have much to gain, and much to lose within the game. Along the way, special interests emerge, alliances are formed, horse trading ensues, and those with the biggest war chest, megaphone, lobby, or connection win, prosper, or avoid as best they can.

Meanwhile, the mess still sits there. Since all resources went to protecting or pushing individual positions focused on avoiding or shifting blame, the glass got left on the floor because nobody took responsibility. A curious by-product of this kind of blame game is that everyone loses in some fashion when the mess is left behind. If not now, later.

The Opportunity Beyond Blame

How much energy do you invest in the blame game? Look around for a moment and consider the size of our legal industry. Think of the millions (billions?) of hours spent arguing, re-arguing, and arguing again. Now, imagine how much time those of us who depend on the legal industry spend depending on them. Next, consider the government side of it all: state and federal. Millions of people. We spend massive energy on blaming and defending against blame.

A large portion of our economy and our society has evolved in response to the blame game. One might argue that it is all necessary and to be expected considering the scale and complexity of our country. Perhaps.

Now, imagine what might happen if half of those involved in the healthcare blame game were redeployed to clean up the mess. Instead of arguing cases in courts, pleading with legislatures, suing opponents, running ad campaigns trying to convince everyone of the necessity of whatever special interest, and defending against all of the above, imagine those armies of individuals shifting their efforts to designing something new.

The blame game crushes innovation, calcifies status quo, and fosters subterfuge rather than unleashing the creative energy necessary to solve the big problems. The blame game centers our attention on short-term, game-board moves like parrying, lunging, or punting rather than the long-game strategy that moves communities and economies. The blame game lets the messes sit and rot, festering until they infect or spill into other domains. At some point, the mouldering mess runs beyond any hope of remediation as it it absorbed into the very fabric upon which it rested.

Plenty to go Around

There is a time to assign responsibility. Justice must be served and sometimes blame is part of that process. But generally speaking, there is plenty of blame to go around and we waste precious resources playing its game.

“It seems to me,” said Mama, “that instead of shouting and pointing fingers, we should get to work and solve the problem.”

Sage advice.

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