Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Government's Dilemma

One of government's ongoing problems can best be understood by cleaning up your kitchen. Nobody else is home; the kitchen counter is littered with crumbs; dirty dishes clutter the sink. As you clean up the mess, think about whether anyone will notice the difference. A family member will arrive home, see a clean counter and sink, dishes stowed away, and think everything is as it should be. Only you remember how it looked just one hour prior, and know how much work it took to put things in order. Most everyone's played both roles in this scenario countless times.

Now consider an administration that puts government's house in order. Programs run efficiently; taxes and expenditures are kept in line; crises are avoided through wise judgement. The voters will have no clue as to how much work it took to achieve this desired state of affairs, because none of the myriad small decisions and acts of diligence that make an organization run well will be considered newsworthy. It's harder to claim credit for avoiding crises than for solving them. And a rival will claim that he can cut taxes and still balance the budget. Furthermore, the voters will have become complacent during this long period of peace and prosperity, leaving the administration vulnerable.

It is in our makeup to tackle problems, but the ingredients are also there for the desired state of affairs, when it is occasionally reached, to be taken for granted, for bulls to find their way into the china shop, and for government to fall again into disarray.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Small Steps To Big Change

To bring about the big changes necessary to spare us from the worst prospects of global warming, we naturally look to big ideas and new technologies to lead the way. New fleets of energy efficient cars, solar arrays spreading across every rooftop, wouldn't it be grand? Unfortunately, all these wondrous changes have yet to materialize, and there simply isn't time to wait. Change in the double digits--20%, 30% or more--has to happen now, not ten years from now.

To bring about big changes, and fast, we must preoccupy our large brains with a multitude of small things--an unused light on in the next room, wearing warmer clothes rather than cranking the heat, combining errands to reduce time on the road. During the Cold War, we thought the end would come in one fell swoop of nuclear holocaust. Now, we know the world is more likely to be undone by the accumulation of miniscule acts perpetrated by countless innocents, upstanding citizens all, as we go about our everyday business of staying fed and comfortable and entertained.

This does not mean we become small-minded. Rather, it requires seeing small acts as the expression of big ideas. In realizing that the seemingly insignificant actions that constitute much of our days are part of a very big problem, we may lose our innocence but gain a sense of personal power to change what is within our power to change, and so alter the destiny of a very large planet.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Danger of Peace and Prosperity

It will be no surprise if today's voter turnout surpasses all records. When things go so wrong, as they have in the last eight years, people respond. If the next administration is able to put the nation on a more positive trajectory, problems will ease, and so will voter interest. The real test of a nation's sustainability is if people show up to vote when things are going well.

We've seen what happens when peace and prosperity rein. To fill the void in bad news, the news media and the opposition party focus in on petty scandal, the work and skill that go into careful stewardship of government and the economy goes unheralded and unappreciated, and before you know it, people begin voting for whomever they'd feel comfortable drinking a beer with.

The next president faces a huge task in repairing the damage done by incompetent leaders. But equally important is making the nation less likely to elect poor leaders in the future.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Dark Side of the Reagan Legacy

The following was written in 2004, during the George W. Bush administration. 

The Dark Side of the Reagan Legacy
One factor that has led to the ongoing dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is the lack of a robust critique of the Reagan presidency. If conservatives fault him at all, they will likely mention only the shadow of high expectations he cast upon his successors.

But I would argue the opposite. It is the shadow of low expectations that haunts us in the long wake of the Reagan era, and the more a nation mythologizes a past president, the less chance of escaping the dark side of his legacy.

The strengths and charms of Ronald Reagan have been well celebrated, and deference was paid through the long years of his tragic illness. But for the good of the nation, it is time to strip the Reagan legacy of its protective amber of sentimentality and give it the same scrutiny afforded all other former presidents. Here are the outlines of such a critique:

President Reagan is widely viewed as a man of his word who consistently cut taxes and reduced the size of government. In fact, in studies that tracked whether presidents followed through on campaign promises, Reagan scored below all four of the most recent Democratic presidents.

After his initial tax cuts in 1981, he raised various taxes in every year that followed. He reduced domestic spending but increased spending elsewhere. To the government he inherited, he added $1.9 trillion in spending over eight years.

Ronald Reagan lifted a nation's spirit with his contagious optimism, yet he also introduced the seeds of a deep pessimism that haunts Republicans and the nation today. His oft-quoted words: "Government is not the solution; government is the problem," have been mistakenly used to legitimize a rigid, self-fulfilling notion that government cannot play an important role in solving problems. As demonstrated by 21st-century Republican rule, anti-government thinking has led not to smaller government but instead to incompetence, deepening debt and paralysis in the face of mounting problems.

One of Reagan's more celebrated quotes is: "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican." But this once-stirring call to party solidarity has had tragic consequences for the nation, as a Republican-controlled Congress failed to exercise oversight over itself and the Bush administration. The result is a Republican Party disciplined enough to acquire and solidify power but incapable of ethical and competent governance. George Washington's warnings about "the baneful effects of the spirit of party," voiced in his Farewell Address, speak to our time.

Reagan severed conservatives from a tradition of fiscal responsibility. Again in stark contrast to George Washington's warnings, a new policy of expanding government debt even in times of relative peace and prosperity began in the 1980s. Cutting government significantly and wisely requires deep knowledge, hard work, tough choices and a willingness to risk one's popularity. Reagan simply wasn't up to the task. According to biographer Lou Cannon, Reagan refused to at tack entitlements even when he had the opportunity to do so.

According to the U.S. General Accountability Office, our nation's debt and unfunded obligations stand at $53 trillion. Reagan's legacy of pain-avoidance, of promoting tax-rate cuts without the corresponding pain of spending cuts, has made this crisis impossible to discuss.

The Reagan administration's comparatively small-time escapades in Nicaragua and Grenada revealed a nation highly vulnerable to the sort of misleading sales job that preceded the current president's invasion of Iraq.

The Reagan model of a president often disengaged, with modest work ethic and with little curiosity about large sectors of reality, made similar weaknesses in George W. Bush's makeup seem less worrisome to voters.

Reagan allowed ideology to override scientific findings on evolution, AIDS and Star Wars, for instance. This blinders mentality continues to hamper governmental response to looming crises, most tragically in the case of climate change.

Ronald Reagan was most effective when he strayed from his own orthodoxy -- when he held talks with the "Evil Empire's" Mikhail Gorbachev, when he quietly withdrew troops from Lebanon, and when he increased taxes to keep Social Security solvent.

But his ideological descendants have inherited none of this pragmatism, and instead have turned his fighting words into rigid policy, expanding his darker policies while exploiting the blind spots in critical thinking that his winning personality cultivated in the public mind. Now, as problems languish and deepen, as climate change, health-care costs and massive debt cry out for a strong, informed governmental response, lingering affection for a president must not obscure the flaws in his personality and policies.

For the good of the nation and the Republican Party, it's time to drop the sentimentality and seek a better model for future leaders.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Choosing Leaders: Part 1

Guts, Blinking and the Work Ethic

George W. Bush, it is said, likes to trust in his gut feeling. Sarah Palin believes the test of a good leader is if he or she blinks when faced with a tough challenge. Anyone who seeks to lead the free world has got to harbor a big dose of chutzpah, but it's now abundantly clear that not all guts are created equal. Given the nation's vulnerability to poor leadership, it's time to expand the definition of guts beyond raw courage.

In evaluating candidates, ask if they exhibit solidity and courage, but also ask if their guts have an appetite for knowledge and wisdom, if they have digested history, will stomach dissent from their advisors, and extract the best from diverse viewpoints. When faced with a tough challenge, like developing a serviceable familiarity with policy, history, economics and science, have they stepped up to the plate or taken a pass?

In the 1980's, much was made of abuses of government welfare programs, in which people would work the system so they could live high off government handouts without doing any work. The question now is whether we should expect our leaders to have a work ethic--to study up and burn the midnight oil--or simply reward them with power and government salaries based on their folksy demeanors.

Low-Flow Toilets and the Blessings of Smart Regulation

Toilets don't normally come up in conversation. The last time they were in the news was back in 1997, when the federal government passed a law requiring that all new toilets use a maximum of 1.6 gallons of water per flush. The new requirement generated loud complaints on editorial pages about government overreaching, and the slew of poorly functioning toilets that ensued gave comedians some good punch lines. In fact, a little research at the time (see below) showed that government was being falsely maligned, and that a few unsung manufacturers responded to the regulatory challenge by designing effective toilets.

In searching for a replacement for the old, inefficient 4 gallon toilets in my house (3 gallons if one puts bricks or weighted bottles in the tank), it turns out that manufacturers have figured out how to use even less water than the government standard. Toto has come out with a 1.28 gallon toilet, and I've been told by a local retailer that all manufacturers will be using less than 1.6 gallons in the future. We bought a 1.28 gallon model, which works far better than any of the old 4 gallon types.

Examples of how limits, rather than unfettered freedom, spur invention can be found in many fields. The great classical composer, Igor Stravinsky would say that in constraint there can be freedom. Boundaries can help channel invention. The boundaries of a tennis court have brought tennis to a higher level than it would have achieved without them. President Kennedy's call for a man to land on the moon by the end of the 60s essentially framed a decade, creating a boundary within which the desired result should be and was achieved. Regulation, like goal setting, can be seen as either a burden or an inspiration.

Not all regulation is so constructive, but in the case of the lowly toilet, manufacturers responded by making a better product, and even going beyond what the government required. If you haven't had your quota of puns today, below is a letter I wrote to the Raleigh News and Observer back in 1997, telling how the need for catharsis can make the news media a channel for something other than truth:

Truth Down the Drain (from a 1997 letter to the editor)

Both Dave Barry's July 20 humor column and your April 5 editorial "Flunking the flush test" presented an appealing story line to feed our disgust with big government. The subject of these cathartic diatribes was, alas, low-flow toilets. By limiting the amount of water per flush to a measly 1.6 gallons, Washington bureaucrats have imposed on us, the hapless masses, a new generation of dysfunctional toilets.

Regulation run amok, it would seem. The only problem is that the distance between the story line and reality is, well, commodious.

For one thing, the regulations didn't come down to us from the feds, but instead originated in various water-poor states. And it wasn't overzealous environmentalists who led the push for a uniform national standard, but plumbing manufacturers frustrated by each state setting its own standards.

Nor are all 1.6 gallon toilets dysfunctional. Some manufacturers dumped poorly designed commodes on the market--no doubt secure in the fact that word-of-mouth on a subject like this would be next to nil. Contractors contributed to the snafu by installing the cheapest toilets they could find, regardless of quality.

Cast in this light, the federal government appears to be the only entity that has acted responsibly. That is, other than the unsung manufacturers who went to the trouble of designing dependable 1.6 gallon toilets, and now find their products unfairly maligned.

Whether it be a commode or the latest tirade against government, best not to buy it before checking the facts.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Religion and a Nation's Destiny

When you're driving, do you wear a seatbelt, or do you leave it off and trust that God will save you if there's an accident? Over the past eight years, I've seen the most powerful nation in the world flying by the seat of its pants, trusting that God (or the free market) will intervene to make things work out.

God works in subtle ways. Thus far, with Iraq, the energy crisis, global warming, I don't see God swooping in to make everything work out. After all, He's got a whole universe to look after. It's a bit presumptuous to expect Him to do a lot of hand-holding, particularly for a nation at the peak of its powers. "In God We Trust" doesn't mean you win the game by throwing one Hail Mary after another. If God has given us enough brain power to predict the consequences of invading a country or continuing to burn fossil fuels, does He want us to ignore what we've learned in favor of a blind faith that everything will work out?

Does this happen to all great civilizations, that at their peak their people contract a virulent sense of powerlessness and fatalism, and reject their God-given abilities to understand the world's workings? Where do we put our faith? In God, in market forces, in government, in science and technology, in ourselves? How about in a combination of all the above?

Friday, April 04, 2008

News Media and Our Discontent

Today's headline in the NY Times, "81% in Poll Say Nation Is on the Wrong Track," provides as good an excuse as any to begin a long-delayed project. According to the poll, "Americans are more dissatisfied with the country’s direction than at any time since the New York Times/CBS News poll began asking about the subject in the early 1990s."

It's fair to conclude that this nation, the strongest in the world, remains profoundly vulnerable to poor leadership. Is the system self-correcting? Will enough capable and effective leaders come forward and be voted into office to change people's negative view of government and the country's course?

It was back in the early 90s that I concluded that the news media, upon which we as voters depend for information on current and potential leaders, was both tragically flawed and unlikely to ever change. Newt Gingrich was leading an ascendant conservative movement to take control of Congress. He and other Republican leaders mounted a devastating critique of the status quo in Washington, heavy on symbolism and often slim on content. The news media proved helpless to put the accusations in context, to point out that some alleged mountains of government waste were in fact mole hills.

Mainstream news organizations, it turned out, were not the public's watchdogs, but instead only passive conduits for the squeakiest wheels. It's no surprise that, fourteen years later, all the promises to shrink and clean up government have come to nothing.

News as we know it is preoccupied with stories. A bomb goes off in Baghdad. A candidate makes a faux pas. But hearing these breaking stories tells us no more about reality than gazing at breaking waves tells us about the ocean. The buildup, the climax and the roiling aftermath are engaging, but what determines an ocean's fate, or a nation's, is not in the eye-catching sparkle on the shifting surface. We stand gazing, clueless as the tension of a tsunami--of debt, environmental catastrophe, incompetence, or financial chaos--builds far below the breaking waves of daily newscasts. By the time it becomes news, we are helplessly awash in its consequences.

The news media is, for competitive reasons, dedicated to keeping our eyes affixed on the breaking news stories of the day. We have chosen our leaders based on these daily servings of shallow drama, and now declare ourselves more disillusioned and despairing than ever.

The waves of breaking news will always be there; I am as entertained by their drama as anyone. What I propose is needed, and will outline in subsequent posts, is a complementary and parallel news service, that will help people journey beneath the waves, to the deeper realities of government, environment and nation, where we can become less vulnerable to the daily shift and sway, less disillusioned by the consistent negativity of the news stream, more able to appreciate good leaders if and when they come along, and more able to discern a plausible path out of current discontent.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Pride in Government?

Imagine, oh jaded ones, the following scenario: A government employee is being interviewed on a radio talk show, and fields a call from a listener in Arkansas who raves about the government's "amazing job." The employee says, "Well, first off, thank you for your support, because it's your tax dollars at work." "You betcha. I'm proud of ya," responds the happy taxpayer.

It's enough to warm the cockles of the heart, and it certainly warmed mine as I drove home, ambushed by good news from a radio station that more often provides painful details on the latest setbacks for humanity.

As it turned out, the program was about NASA's unmanned mission to Mercury, whose dazzling success owes to close collaboration between scientists and engineers, government and the private sector, and cost-conscious budgeting.

Most of us have a quarrel with government. It can be slow, wasteful, easily corrupted. People love to complain. But my heart is not the only one that wishes for a government that elicits more pride than disdain.