Much of the conflict surrounding state and local efforts to promote economic development arises from confusion between goals and strategies.

Goals are easy to say – create more jobs, increase the tax base, lower the tax rate, decrease obesity, decrease dependence on foreign oil – but hard to achieve. Strategies are much harder to explain, but make success in achieving goals much more likely.
A strategy is a plan of action conceived and executed to realize a goal. It is undertaken in a heavily contingent environment, where the outcome from a decision today cannot be known because of the unknown actions of other actors.

In games like checkers, chess, Scrabble or poker, my strategy is born from a knowledge of the rules, an assessment of my strengths and weaknesses (my cards, or letters or position on the board), an educated guess about my opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, a calculation of the benefits of various possible moves, a guess about my opponent’s likely reaction to my possible moves and a ranking of the risk-reward ratios of my possible moves.

My goal is to win the game, and I can play either by jumping impulsively at the first move that pops into my head at each point of decision or by thinking and playing strategically.

Unless I happen to be sitting on an extremely unusual draw of cards or selection of letters, most observers conclude that, over the long run, I am well advised to think and play strategically.

Much of the so-called public debate about the critical issues we face today – health care, energy, job creation – resembles impulsive jumping after goals that are obvious more than thinking about strategies that are difficult.

Our public dialogue around these policy questions would benefit from less talk about goals and more about strategies. And for this, we need examples.

Harvard business professor Michael Porter speaks of the “Five Forces” that determine the competitive environment of a given market – the number and relative size of today’s competitors, the threat of new competitors entering the market, the threat of substitute products taking customers from the market, the bargaining power of customers and the bargaining power of suppliers. Critics have said he should add a sixth force – the regulatory power of the government in the market.

In any case, it seems to me that the all-or-nothing, black and white, you’re good or you’re evil character of much of our debate over energy, health care and business development would benefit from a strong dose of strategic analysis. The call for bipartisan cooperation that we hear so often is based on the simple assertion that “We all agree on the goals.”

Of course we all agree on the goals, but so what? We all want to win the World Series of Poker, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let you play my hand.

We say we want to decrease our dependence on foreign oil. OK. Does that make investing in windmills or solar panels or transmission lines a strategically smart move for Maine as a whole?

Maybe. Or, maybe not.

What are the competitive sources of power? What new sources may enter the market? What are the current and likely future prices of current and possible new sources of power? How much are investment returns today dependent on government loans or tax credits to install generating capacity? What are the risks associated with new sources of oil or natural gas coming on line?

We say we want to increase access to health care. OK, then why the fixation on insurance? Why not just make it a public good like public education?

We say we want to reduce the cost of health care. OK, but how is providing health insurance for millions more people going to help?

Again, we’re lurching from reasonable goal to reasonable goal without consideration of their collective strategic unreasonableness.

From Congress to the state Legislature to local town council chambers, we need to step back from the uncivil debate over the goals we supposedly share and engage in a healthy dose of strategic thinking about how to get there.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]