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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 (different party nominating rules, primary elections, 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.

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.

During the time of revolution likely 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 has both disadvantages and advantages. 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 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 by 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 be fashionable to concentrate blame 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 picks out Colin Powell as the most dovish one and the one who was out of step with the rest of the administration. Colin Powell actually 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.

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?

Refining Our Government

While our government 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 voting just once do the whole job; no more 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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