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Home Ruminations

Common Sense

Here below are some detailed thoughts about governing our society. Similar pages present my thoughts on biological organisms living on earth, communities of human beings, relating to other countries, and more general common sense issues. (While these seem like just simple common sense to me, some of them may be startling to some readers.)

We're all in this together. How we organize our community might be called politics or government.

Polarization and Intransigence

The changes in presidential election rules in the late 60's and early 70's (partisan primary elections, different party nominating rules, and so forth) were a mistake. On the plus side, they seem more fair, and they did indeed fulfill their short-term goal of giving a much stronger voice to the anti-Vietam-war feelings of part of the electorate. (I make no comment here on whether or not that stronger voice was actually effective in ending that war sooner.) But on the minus side, those changes seem the root cause of the current intransigence and polarization in American politics.

Simply put, candidates chosen in the proverbial smoke filled rooms were chosen to win elections, by appealing to the broadest possible swath of the electorate. Candidates chosen by primary party elections, in contrast, must appeal to a core for support; they do so by being polarizing and intransigent. Mostly centrist candidates got nominated before, but now the winners of primary elections are often rather extremist.

When someone other than who you voted for is in power, they talk about and do things you don't like. (In fact you might even think of them as intransigent.) There are quite a few possible reasons for their choices, among them:

But what I can't understand is people accusing those they love to hate of intentionally trying to wreck the country. The folks one loves to hate live here too; wrecking the country would mean wrecking their own home. Folks don't usually foul their own nest.

Our polarization seems to me quite similar to a sports rivalry. An example of a sports rivalry familiar to those acquainted with the Northeast of the U.S. is the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Both teams whip up their fans for the added noise and enthusiasm in the stadium. Besides, it's fun to tease one's cousin from New York City by asking how 'bout them Sox?.

But it's disconcerting when the rivalry turns into a barfight and a death; maybe it's gone too far. Folks will ask those who were there did you forget the rivalry is for entertainment, that it doesn't fundamentally mean much? When team management whips up the crowd you're in, who's in charge of your emotions: you, or team management? Likewise, when political candidates whip up the crowd you're in, who's in charge of your emotions: you, or the political candidate?

Initially I expected that politicians would be intransigent over only the few things that mattered most to them. But in reality most politicians disagree with each other about everything (maybe because they mistakenly think their job requires it). I'm frequently bemused to hear politicians arguing  ‐supposedly competinng for my vote‐  over something silly that really doesn't affect my life at all. Their behavior seems to me very similar to this old beer commercial.→

Shortcut Thinking

Humans have two different styles of thinking always available to them: fast and slow. Suppose Fast and Slow are hunter-gatherers out for a walk. They pass a patch of tall grass, and hear some sort of rustling sound. Fast chooses to use the fast style of thinking, selects the rule of thumb rustling sound→run and immediately starts running away. Slow chooses to use the slow style of thinking, mentally listing all the possibities (wind, imagination, field mouse, lion, ...) and trying to figure out which one it is.

Guess who gets away and who becomes lunch. The fast style of thinking with its rules of thumb (the scientific word is heuristics) has its advantages. Accuracy isn't one of them though; the fast style misses more often. But the cost of missing is often quite low; for example being called skittish because of running away from every little rustle isn't usually a big deal.

So humans have learned to use the fast style of thinking with its rules of thumb most of the time. We hear rules of thumb like don't do anything different than my parents did or avoid anything I didn't learn about in elementary school or shun it if it's explanation used a word I didn't know. Often these rules of thumb take on a life of their own by coalescing into an ideology.

Often what politicians argue about is at root disagreeing about whose rules of thumb are better. I find this a little silly; politicians should be disagreeing about something more substantial. There are several reasons why politicians don't really have to argue over whose rules of thumb are better, including:

  1. As legislators don't have to make split-second decisions, they don't really need a speed advantage. In fact, the perfectly adequate slow style of thinking would get the right answer more often.
  2. As legislators don't have to make decisions all by themselves, they don't really need to keep it super-simple. They have a staff to thoroughly research and understand issues from every angle.
  3. Which shortcut to follow is just a secondary difference; time and effort could be better spent on the primary issue itself.

Bureaucratic Infighting

The highest praise for a government official these days is to characterize him/her as a good bureacratic infighter. For example a Google search for bureaucratic infighting turns up over 60,000 uses of the term. Apparently these days getting any old idea implemented matters more than the quality of that idea.

Not only has ability at bureaucratic infighting become one of the most important qualifications, the fighting itself has grown more vicious. Here's a recent quotation about our federal government: Some engage in bureacratic infighting using slaps. Some use knives. ....

Even wrong-headed ideas with great bureaucratic infighting behind them routinely trump better ideas. Currently in the USA the method of promotion is more important than what's being promoted.

Perhaps this is not how things should stand.

Domestic vs. Foreign President

The jobs of domestic president and foreign policy president of the United States are more separate than we may prefer to think. Skill and experience at one don't imply much about the other. Most of our presidents have been good at one and poor at the other. Consider for example Lyndon Johnson who brought us the Great Society at home and Vietnam abroad. Or consider the presidential track records of former state governors. As the US makes domestic politicians their president, either US foreign policy has stayed in the muddled middle or the tiny professional bureaucratic foreign policy elite has gained inordinate influence.

And let's dispense with our old preference for military leaders as presidents. Sure George Washington was both a great military leader and a great president. But we're no longer well served by presidents with military backgrounds, most especially not for our domestic president.

Perhaps our muddle about what sort of president we need stems from confusion about whether the USA is a nation or an empire. Does the US lead the world or not? Slavoj Zizek in Iraq's False Promises in the January/February 2004 issue of Foreign Policy magazine says: The problem with today's United States is not that it is a new global empire, but that it is not, i.e., that, while pretending to be an empire, it continues to act as a nation-state, ruthlessly pursuing its interests. Indeed, in a perverse reversal of the old ecological slogan, the bumper sticker for the Bush administration's foreign policy could well be 'act globally, think locally.'

Tricky Transition After Revolution

Revolutions which overthrow the current government or dictator generally have such bright hopes initially. But often after a few years the situation becomes at least as bad as the previous one and often even worse. Transitioning after a revolution is tricky.

To effectively hold sway over the whole country, the old government needed to have tens of thousands of people involved in local politics who thought the same way the central government did. The vast majority of those old politicians are still around (even though the people at the top were replaced). The new government often needs those old people to effectively control the whole country. Yet relying on them may be a two-edged sword. (Old political hacks changing their clothes and coming back is well illustrated by the countries of the old U.S.S.R.)

Under the previous government, people got in the habit of thinking of the government in a bad light. And more recently society was so chaotic it wasn't easy to even identify what was the government. So as soon as given the chance, citizens are likely to sandbag and question and disobey nearly everything (even things that are reasonable). The new government finds the country ungovernable, except by resort to unreasonable force.

Likely during the time of revolution the country became militarized, and is now overrun by a bewildering variety of local militias and warlords. Each has their own strong feelings about how things should be done (and they have guns:-). Getting them to cede control to a new government is hard, and getting them to go away  —to melt back into the population like before—  is difficult too. (Local militias and warlords hamstringing the operation of a new central government is well illustrated by Libya.)

In many cases parts of the old government mechanism remain, and are still staffed by appointees left over from the old government. Those appointees are effectively able to scuttle whatever the new government tries to do. Even a powerful new central leader becomes quite frustrated. So the new leader temporarily takes on such great powers that they eventually become the new dictator. (Egypt well illustrates the problems of inherited appointees and all-powerful new leaders.) Perhaps there's wisdom in that old saw about power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Serving The Population

In the computer game SimCity, the leader tries to make decisions that provide a satsifactory life to the entire population. One has to provide adequate fire coverage or the city burns down. One has to provide work for the citizens so they can pay enough taxes to keep the city going. And so forth.

Maybe we should expect our political leaders to act similarly. Maybe we could dispense with elections, instead having the candidates play SimCity against each other and awarding the winner the next term in office.

Convincing the Rank and File

It's certainly quicker and easier to redirect large institutions or countries by limiting decisions to a very small group of people who control the levers of power. Even in the USA the discussions in Washington often have no relation to the arguments broadcast to the larger populace. Tiny groups can make decisions for the whole that have only lukewarm support among the rank and file. (Consider the current foreign policy of the USA.)

Yet the cost of involving only very small groups is decisions that are brittle — they can be inadvertently crossed by underlings who don't understand them, and they can be all too easily thrown out. It takes plenty of time and effort to convince every individual, but the advantage of reasoning to a broadly supported concensus is robustness. The organization will continue in the same direction even if its leaders are removed. And the direction will be stubbornly pursued rather than casually changed.

As an example consider all the environmental consciousness we've been feeding to USA schoolchildren for many years. A big concensus is building up, and there will be no way to stop the juggernaut. Only a crazy person would float environmentally unaware ideas in the USA a generation from now.

Two Countries

The USA that grew out of the Roosevelt years is very very different from the USA of the founding fathers. This country has inherited two histories rather than just one.

The founding fathers never imagined the industrial revolution and had no concept of a social safety net. They considered working for wages unthinkable; a common opinion held that slavery was less of an evil than wages. Slavishly returning to the originating documents now would be like changing horses in the middle of a river. Mario Cuomo describes the second USA in his book Reason To Believe.

Why not  ‐as Everett Dirksen and others have proposed‐  call a Second Constitutional Convention to update the document to our current reality? Perhaps we should. Why hasn't it happened? Perhaps because once our constitution is opened up for any reason, no matter how well intentioned, it would be impossible to get the needed agreement.

Elites Somewhat Circumscribed

Reserving high office for members of a small elite rather than making all offices open to everyone equally is a two-edged sword. Sometimes we in the USA are so focused on the disadvantages we forget there are advantages too.

One disadvantage is it's obviously unfair to other people and can generate a lot of resentment. Another disadvantage is that semi-hereditary elites tend to be overly conservative, often making plans more appropriate to the problems of their father's generation than the current situation. A third disadvantage is that good ideas that aren't present in the culture of the elites tend to never be considered — the whole country is condemned to live in the same box as the elite.

An advantage on the other hand is those in high office are relatively free of overweening ambition. They haven't had to claw their way to the top, and are not so likely to "elbow first, discuss later." Another advantage is those in high office tend to be embedded in a large strong matrix of family and social connections with people who aren't deferential. One result of this is they're more familiar with at least a little bit of diversity of opinion. Another result is they have a built in circle of intimates not entirely of their own choosing who will let them know right away if they propose something crazy. A third result is they tend to have a longer term view, carefully considering the effect of proposed policies on their descendants. And finally a code of conduct is bestowed on them rather than letting them construct whatever ethics fit the current situation conveniently.

Another advantage (assuming the personal cost of campaigns is limited, which is not currently the case:-) is those who are independently wealthy are much less subject to domination by a few individuals with a lot of money. Legal corruption is much less likely. However distasteful the particular source of financial independence may be, when compared to the possibility of having our government mechanisms captured by moneyed interests, it may nevertheless be desirable as the lesser of two evils.

Power Politics vs. Human Relations

A couple of people who called in to  —as well as a guest on—  a talk radio show on WBUR expressed more clearly than I could one of my own thoughts:

Many administrations are completely focussed on power politics and take no account of the relationships between people. It has no understanding of why a person could feel so ticked off about being disenfranchised that they resort to violence. The real shape of the problem of terrorism isn't even on the administration's map, and they don't have any way to talk or think about it as it actually is. Their solutions are wildly off the mark  —maybe even counterproductive—  because they don't really understand what they're dealing with. Good intentions go only so far when the fundamental problem isn't understood.

Although it may have been fashionable to concentrate blame for invading Iraq on the former Secretary of Defense and perhaps also the President, doing so is neither fair nor accurate. The entire administration  —not just one rogue cabinet member—  did a concerted sell job on the American people. It's interesting that conventional wisdom picked out Colin Powell as the most dovish one and the one who was out of step with the rest of that administration. Colin Powell has impeccable conservative credentials, and seems dovish only in comparison to people on the extreme.

Commander In Chief an Anachronism

There was a time when the military leader of a nation and the civilian leader of a nation were routinely the same person. Napoleon led the government of France. Napoleon also led France's armies.

Our constitution was written during that period. The then-current practice of having the civilian leader and the military leader of a nation be the same person was frozen into US custom. Other countries don't do it anymore --for good reason. The ideal nowadays is full-time professional military officers who take their orders from the civilian government. But in the USA the old one-person arrangement continues because it's enshrined in our founding documents.

It's just a historical accident. Why do we insist on it?

Having An MBA President Isn't A Cure-All For Our Government

Perhaps our government should be run more like a business. Perhaps it's only sensible for our politicians to have studied at business schools. Our corporations are quite successful, and maybe it's sensible to try to transplant some of that success to our government.

Our government could be more of a purpose-driven organization and less of a bureaucracy. A sharper focus on goals and milestones might be a good thing.

And it seems obvious our government would be improved by cost-consciousness and cost-cutting. The same sort of attention to the bottom line that helps our corporations could help our government too.

Unfortunately the analogy can easily be carried much further. The plastic staged PR face of many corporations would discourage citizen involvement in our government even further. And rigged stockholder meetings could have their counterpart in rigged elections.

"Turf wars" are all too common in business. Surely we'd prefer not to have even more of them in our government too. In the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, questions of the org chart and who's in charge occupied the fore. This aspect of business may not be appropriate to our government.

And one of the commonplaces of current business strategy is that underlings should be given unqualified support (until they can be quietly shuffled out). That modus conflicts sharply with the history of politics in our country and can all too easily make it seem that government officials are not and will not be held accountable. A quest for loyalty all too easily shades over into patronage. (Time Magazine's How Many More Mike Browns Are Out There? presents a view of the cronyism in the Bush administration.)

In the business world, some(?) accountability is provided by having to report to a board of directors and by watching the stock price. But so far in government, similar accountability is sorely lacking. The only thing that can carry the message that we're going off the rails is a universal outpouring of disgust. That can't happen easily or frequently enough to provide the feedback needed for mid-course corrections.

Positing a country is just like a company led to hoping we could simply replace the top layer of the regime in Iraq, and the bureaucracy and the military would continue to run the country. Simply replacing the CEO can indeed redirect a company, but as we now know trying to simply replace the president of Iraq (the decapitation strategy) didn't work out very well. Overgeneralized MBA thinking can be dangerously misleading.

The response to Hurricane Katrina under George Bush was another serious test of our MBA Presidency experiment. The MBA Presidency was certainly not a slam-dunk.

Attitudes Toward Political Parties Vary Markedly

It's hard to recognize just how different attitudes toward political parties are in different regions of our country. For example in New England political parties are treated as something practically enshrined in our Constitution (although they're not), while on the West Coast political parties are barely tolerated as some sort of necessary evil. An opinion piece -or even a Supreme Court decision- that seems obvious in one region can seem preposterous in another.

Few pundits seem to realize just how deep these differences are.

No Historical Document Has All The Answers

Many dismiss Islamic militants whose answer to everything is simply Sharia. That answer seems naive in the extreme, characterizing as mere complexities what we think of as fundamental reality. And that answer simply ignores any elements of the current situation that were't imagined earlier.

Can such people really be serious? Why should we pay any attention to them? Where's their thoughtfulness?

But simply referring all questions back to The US Constitution -as some of our citizens do too easily- is just another variation of the very same thing. Why should we pay any attention to people who simply answer every question with The US Constitution? Where's their thoughtfulness?

Voting by Mail Isn't Very Risky

A common image is that mail-in voting risks a lot of fraud because it's so easy to impersonate someone else. Just mail in a ballot saying you're Joe when you're really Bill, and the vote tabulators have no way of knowing that vote is fraudulent. ...supposedly

It needn't —and usually doesn't— work that way. In most states (each state sets up its own procedures) only ballots in a sealed envelope supplied by the election commission are accepted. And such envelopes are individually and uniquely marked so that each one is separately identifiable. You can't say you're Joe if your envelope says Bill. (In some states, for even more security voting envelopes are actually set up to be individually tracked by the Post Office.)

In Massachusetts for example, if you request a mail-in ballot but then show up at the polls in person anyway, the registrar will be made aware of that right away while checking you in. If you haven't actually mailed in your ballot yet, the registrar will ask you which vote should be counted. And assuming your answer is your in-person vote should be counted, your mail-in ballot will then be ignored (likely it will never even be opened). If on the other hand your mail-in ballot has already been received, you will not be allowed to vote in person at all, as that could give you two votes. Most folks don't know exactly how all this works, other than that the barcode on the back of every Massachusetts drivers license is somehow involved. (Making a system more secure by not publicizing the details of exactly how it works is a common practice in computerized information systems.)

More fraud charges suggests a better system, as it indicates that a] more fraud can be detected, and b] that government is energetically punishing fraudsters. If a system has few or no fraud charges, it suggests that either a lot of fraud is never detected, or that fraud continues with impunity because the chances of getting punished are so low.

Even a whole bunch of tiny frauds does not outweigh the substantial advantages of making mail-in voting available, both because the numbers of fraudulent votes are so small compared to the total number of votes, and because all the miscellaneous tiny frauds tend to cancel each other out. If though either a single fraud or a coordinated group of frauds large enough to change the winner of an election were ever detected, it would indicate a grave problem.

Refining Our Government

While our government is already pretty good, it could be even better. A quick summary of specific ideas for refining our government:

  1. Get the money out of politics, especially elections
    (part of this is reversing the Citizens United court decision, the one that makes our government available to deep-pocketed corporations).
  2. Streamline our serial elections process
    (make only one voting time complete most elections; many fewer primaries)
  3. Minimize gerrymandering
    (have somebody else make redistricting decisions besides the very people who will run for election in the revised districts)

Garrison Keillor's We're Not in Lake Wobegon Anymore expresses my opinions well.

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