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July 13, 2011

Stewart Prager’s opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times about fusion power got me thinking about the opportunities posed by fusion in other forms. As Prager explained, fusion power holds the promise of producing abundant power with few harmful side effects. All we have to do is figure out how to manage or contain reactions like those at the core or our own sun that produce temperatures around 100 million degrees Celcius.

Clearly, that technical hurdle presents a pretty high bar. Prager himself calls fusion energy production “one of the most challenging science and engineering challenges ever undertaken.”  But the way he puts it makes the problem of bottling the sun somehow seem possible.

Prager’s optimism emerges from impressive successes produced by efforts to think a bit differently about the problem. Instead of trying to contain the reaction by conventional means, scientists are experimenting with ways of controlling reactions so they produce the same amount of heat but in bursts of just a fraction of a second.

This leadership lesson from the esoteric world of high energy physics makes me wonder whether efforts to solve other problems, like the budget deficit, would benefit from a more measured approach. Instead of confining the negotiators in a room and heaping pressure on them to reach a deal, maybe we should look for other ways of managing the heat produced by the application of such intense pressure.

Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) proposal yesterday evening may just do this. If passed by both houses, the proposal would give President Obama unilateral authority to raise the debt ceiling in increments that would presumably allow the country to avert the looming default crisis and extend the debt ceiling through the end of President Obama’s current term of office.

Clearly, House Republicans loyal to Tea Party activists consider this proposal unacceptable because it does not require offsetting spending cuts. That alone should make it attractive to Democrats worried that it will saddle the president and his party with a reputation for digging a deeper hole of debt.

Although I suspect Americans themselves are as deeply divided about the question of debt and taxes as their representatives in Washington, D.C., the political consequence do not vex them to the same degree.The economy and the lingering effects of unemployment, slow growth, rising energy and food costs, and the prospect of a return to economic contraction remain their dominant concerns.

Unlike the obstacles impeding progress toward the production of abundant energy through the power of fusion reactions, the country’s challenges are not primarily technical in nature. But the analogy does not break down here. To the contrary, overcoming the barriers to political fusion require a similar commitment to managing the heat.

Political leaders and their constituents alike might benefit from taking a bit of a breather. Despite their differences, leaders of both parties and many of their constituents have made their commitment to deficit reduction clear. It is equally clear that anything that undermines economic stability in the short term will compromise efforts to achieve a debt reduction in the medium term through spending cuts, tax increases or other measures that include combinations of both.

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