Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Government's Legitimate Role--A Sports Analogy

One seemingly bottomless source of national pessimism today is the notion that government can't do anything right and that regulators are by nature the enemy of freedom and commerce. It's enough to make one head to the sports section, where a much healthier relationship with governance is on display.

Sports in general provides a fine analogy for what government's role should ideally be. The athletes and their teams, motivated to beat the competition, bring to their game the same energy and creativity that entrepreneurs and businesses bring to the marketplace. But though the players and coaches may dispute a call now and then, they don't make the mistake of perceiving regulation as the enemy. Rather, a good game requires clear rules and regulations that are fairly applied.

Boundaries in sports do not constrict action so much as channel it, challenging the players to refine their skills to make the most of the freedom and opportunities the game's framework provides. Without a net and clear boundaries, tennis would never have produced the likes of a Roger Federer. Similarly, manufacturers have responded to the combination of a competitive marketplace and rigorous government standards by greatly increasing the efficiency of appliances like refrigerators, while also lowering costs. Environmental regulations, then, are falsely maligned when in fact they can motivate manufacturers to dramatically improve their products and save consumers money.

There must be many football fans who believe that the nation's economy would thrive if only government regulations were slashed, and yet the game itself is a celebration of rules and regulations. All the while underregulated financial institutions were precipitating a financial meltdown in the fall of 2007, football fans were scrutinizing instant replays for the slightest infraction.

Earlier this fall, professional football provided a definitive demonstration of what happens when governance is given short shrift. When the NFL replaced its union referees with high school and college refs used to slower-paced play, their incompetence damaged the game. The NFL essentially replicated an experiment conducted by George W. Bush. By putting incompetent appointees in charge of FEMA, President Bush set the stage for the botched government response to the devastation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Sports, too, clearly demonstrates the flaw in the assertion that regulations would better be determined by states rather than by the federal government. Imagine if teams in different states could make up their own rules and field dimensions. The result would be chaos, which is why industry so often lobbies for uniform standards at the federal level.

Ideologies that equate regulation with tyranny, common in political discourse, sound bizarre when applied to the realm of sports. You don't hear athletes quoting Ayn Rand and calling for the elimination of referees and boundaries in the name of freedom. Nor is there any illusion that professional athletes will nobly police their own behavior. As football has increased in speed and complexity, the NFL has increased the number of referees from 3 to 7. Contrast this with calls by many politicians to get government out of the way of financial markets, even as the financial sector has exploded in size, complexity and speed.

But the importance of regulation and its consistent enforcement goes beyond insuring an exciting, fair, well-paced competition, whether in sports or the marketplace. Particularly in football, good regulation also protects players from mutual destruction. It is understood that each player is potentially a lethal weapon, capable of harming self and others.

In some ways, chronic traumatic encephalopathy--the longterm consequence of repeated concussion--is to football what climate change is to a fossil fuel-based economy. Both maladies are slow to manifest, eventually making normal life impossible. How does one save football, when the violence it is based on puts players' brains at risk? And how to save our economy, when the fuels it is based on put the nation at ever-increasing risk of catastrophic changes in weather patterns? Here, again, the sports world has proven more mature and reality-based than the political realm. As scientific evidence of the long-term impact of concussions has accumulated, denial has given way to regulatory efforts to grapple with the problem.

As in the marketplace, the goal in football is not to rid the game of regulations, but to find the right balance. Too much regulation stifles creativity and slows the action. Too little breeds chaos and puts the players and the game itself at risk. When well-targeted regulations are consistently applied, governance disappears into the background and all attention can be focused on the game.

It is this aspect of the anti-government movement in our national political discourse that is most corrosive of the nation's functioning and spirit. The constant questioning of government's legitimate role in regulating society has the paradoxical effect of keeping government in the foreground, a bleeding sore that will not heal. We need to get past this constant berating of government, acknowledge its vital role, and work to refine its implementation so that it can hum along smoothly in the background.

Referees and regulators will never be loved. But there can be no doubt they are vital to the game. It's time such an understanding spreads to our political discourse.

A version of this piece appeared in the NJ Star-Ledger, coincidentally published the morning before Hurricane Sandy devastated the eastern U.S. It was later reposted at ClimateProgress.org.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Civics, Humanities, and News Media in NJ

This past week, there was a well-attended public forum at the Arts Council of Princeton, entitled "Civics, Humanities, and News Media in NJ", organized by Susan Haig of njartsnews.org. The general topic had to do with civic engagement and what people are looking for from the news media. There were quite a few comments relevant to the theme of this website.

Chris Satullo of WHYY spoke of the need to make connections between global events and local realities, and vice versa, and link problems to solutions. Doug Doyle of WBGO in Newark said people in this part of the country tend not to know their neighbors, and that there aren't enough conversations happening. He gave an interesting example of how he triggers conversations with people he doesn't know, on the street or at events, simply by wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers shirt. The conversation may start with football, but quickly veers off in all sorts of interesting directions, and an engagement and communication happens where otherwise there would be none.

In discussing how to reach people, Kacy O'Brien of Passage Theatre in Trenton encouraged collaboration between organizations, and bringing in new constituencies by telling stories relevant to them. Sharon Ann Holt of the NJ  Council for the Humanities spoke of the need for news media to let people from the community tell their own stories directly to the audience, particularly stories of success in making the community a better place.

Prior to starting NJ Arts News, Susan Haig had an extensive career as a classical pianist and conductor. Her shift, from music to news, sounds reminiscent of the shift that public radio stations took back in the 1990s from playing classical music--interrupted by news at the top of the hour--to extended news and talk shows. Unlike classical music, which typically progresses from tension to resolution, dissonance to tonal agreement, the news media tends to present stories in which problems lack for solutions and tension continues seemingly without end. Audiences are both drawn to and repelled by these perpetual conflicts. My dream would be that so many problems get solved that the daily news becomes boring, at which point people can finally return to the arts for their dosage of drama.

More on the event can be found here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Learning From the Titanic

The Titanic sank 100 years ago today. The following was first published on the April 12 Trenton Times opinion page under the title, "Earth's passengers should learn from the Titanic."

The good ship America is steaming full speed ahead towards the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s demise--the biggest symbol of avoidable disaster ever to sail the seas of human discourse. Given concerns about where we are headed, as a nation and as a planet, it’s worth asking what were the ingredients for disaster as the Titanic approached ice fields on a moonless night.

As chance would have it, the anniversary falls on April 15, usually a rallying point for discontent with government and taxes. But the elements feeding the Titanic’s demise, and other disasters in more recent decades, suggest that the reflexive anti-government thinking so dominant today misses the boat when it comes to identifying the dangers we face in the 21st century.

Technological Hubris: Most people associate the Titanic with a delusional belief in infallibility. The Titanic’s Captain Smith said he could not “imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder." Worst-case scenarios tend to get short shrift in an atmosphere of overconfidence.
Inadequate Regulation: Lack of regulation primed the Titanic for disaster. Ships were not required to have sufficient lifeboats. Lax standards contributed to critical breakdowns in wireless communication between the Titanic and other ships.
Ignored Warnings: Warnings came from various ships in the vicinity that were encountering ice fields that night, but the Titanic made only minor adjustments, and continued at nearly full speed.
Don’t Rock The Boat: The Titanic pressed forward despite risky conditions in part because of high expectations that it stay on schedule.
Poor Information Flow: Safeguarding the ship was not the wireless operators’ top priority. After forwarding to the captain several warnings of icebergs from other ships, they went back to their primary role--relaying the passengers’ personal messages--and dismissed additional warnings as an annoyance.
Delayed Feedback: Having ignored warnings, the Titanic was dependent upon its lookouts to spot icebergs in its path. But visibility was limited on a moonless night, and icebergs show little of their true size looming underwater.
Momentum: When the iceberg finally came into view, the ship’s momentum--its sheer mass and high speed--made a last minute change of course impossible.

This list can be applied to most any disaster of recent decades. Warnings from engineers, scientists and other specialists with critical knowledge went unheeded prior to the two space shuttle disasters, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial collapse. Pressure to stay on schedule caused NASA to launch the space shuttle Challenger despite weather concerns. Inadequate regulation facilitated the financial meltdown.

But the list is most relevant to a calamity just now unfolding. The assumption is that Earth is infinitely resilient, “unsinkable”. Though warnings are repeatedly sounded that we are taking a very risky path, we feel compelled to move forward, to stoke the engines of the economy, even if it’s an economy based on fatally flawed fuels. Advertisements bathe us in celebratory images of gleaming automobiles that, for all their appeal and utility, speed the destabilization of climate.

Our leaders might be more emboldened to take strategic action if voters were better informed about the tremendous risks embedded in the status quo. But the news media are focused on the day to day political drama rather than relaying the scientists’ increasingly urgent warnings. Consensus for action becomes even more problematic when people feel they have a right to their own facts. Worst-case scenarios dare not be mentioned.

What is particularly important to note here is that the Titanic was just one ship. Other ships eventually arrived to pick up the survivors. Laws were passed requiring more lifeboats and better wireless communication. Despite the tragic loss, civilization could continue, safer for the lessons learned. But with spaceship Earth, there are no lifeboats, no other planets to come to our rescue, no second chances. The momentum of both the human economy and human-caused climate change is huge and will require an immense and prolonged effort to counter.

Before the passengers on the Titanic lost their lives, they lost the comfort of their assumptions. Everything deemed important up to the moment of the fateful collision was suddenly rendered trivial. Maximizing one’s wealth, status and entertainment, staying on schedule--all these urgent priorities dissolved into nothing.

We, too, are steaming at full speed towards a rude awakening, in which the priorities we cling to so strongly now will prove in retrospect to have mattered little. A way of life is not guarded by vilifying government, branding scientific knowledge as elitist, and stripping a society of its regulatory protections. “Every man for himself” are the words of a ship captain who realizes all is lost, not a slogan for progress.

The lessons of the Titanic and more recent disasters are there to be learned from. Take warnings seriously, consider worst-case scenarios, and when there’s trouble ahead, shift course before it’s too late.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Two Sides of Regulation

A January 24 article in my local paper announces that the U.S. Dept. of Transportation is imposing new regulations on airlines to protect consumers from unexpected baggage fees and other hidden costs. With so much anti-regulatory talk in political circles, one would expect an outcry over additional regulations of any kind. But there is none mentioned, except for an airline representative who asks why other industries, such as hotels, are not similarly regulated.

Government regulation, then, is both widely reviled as detrimental and quietly accepted as necessary to protect consumers.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Tom Brokaw and Recapturing the American Dream

Tom Brokaw came to Princeton University December 6 to give a talk, built around his new book, "The Time of Our Lives: A conversation about America; Who we are, where we've been, and where we have to go now, to recapture the American dream." (Pause for breath.) His low voice with a touch of gravel sometimes caused words to disappear altogether into the resonant woodwork and stone of Richardson Auditorium. He is calling people to a grand cause--America's journey back to greatness--not with soaring oratory but with a deep conversational tone.

Brokaw must be acknowledged for raising the subject that should be dominating national discourse. More than most, he is calling on America to step out of its lethargy and political paralysis. I sympathize with his cause, but also came to his talk with a mischievous question. What does one call a generation that is greater than The Greatest Generation? There really should be a name, because that is what we need right now. By calling any generation The Greatest Generation--as Brokaw famously named those who endured the hardships of the Great Depression, then defeated the Nazis and Japanese in World War 2--the implication is that all generations that follow cannot possibly compare. While conveying an understandable and deserved respect for those who lived through that era, the title implies that America's best days are behind it.

Consider the possibility that our challenges now are deeper than those faced by America in 1941. The Greatest Generation's enemies were clearly the aggressors, and conveniently distinct geographically and culturally. Back then, the country had a full tank of gas (oil extraction from U.S. lands didn't begin declining until 1971), and though we were 16th in military power in 1939, our economic potential loomed larger than that of Germany and Japan. Now, our easy oil--the baby fat of a nation's youth--is gone, and the greatest economic potential lies elsewhere, in China and India. Most vexing, our greatest enemy is not the sort that we can bomb into submission, but instead is embedded in our lifestyles.

Mr. Brokaw mentioned global warming in passing, as part of a list of challenges. That's two words more than most speakers are willing to give the subject. Understandable, one must say. It's hard to imagine a more insidious and spirit-sapping enemy than climate change, an enemy that prospers on our lifestyles and offers no target to shoot at. It manifests as miniscule, invisible, seemingly benign molecules in the air and sea, lies low at first, growing in proportion to our machine-enhanced comfort, endangering not us so much as our offspring, and by the time its menace galvanizes us to action with Pearl Harbor-scale devastation, it will be by then unstoppable. Such an enemy, exploiting our every weakness and blind spot, requires a generation greater than The Greatest to defeat.

Brokaw is best when describing the lack of sacrifice by the many during a time when America has fought its "two longest wars." The term "1%" came up twice--first to describe the primarily working class and lower middle class soldiers who with their families have borne the brunt of those distant wars, and then in reference to the economic elite who gained the most over the past decade while the middle class lost ground. He said that, in a democracy, it is unjust, even immoral, to have less than 1% fight our wars for us.

He stresses the importance of education, and sees it as the stage upon which we must compete with emerging powers. But that raised another question. How can we convince kids that knowledge matters if journalistic etiquette allows our political leaders to deny scientific and economic realities? The political paralysis we all decry is sustained in part by a willful refusal by many politicians and voters to accept a basic understanding of how the world works.

Brokaw described the widespread poverty in America as it entered the Second World War. For many men, military service meant receiving for the first time a new pair of boots. Many trained with wooden rifles. I would speculate that those preceding years of deprivation had much to do with America's ability to win the war. It's easier to get people to sacrifice if they are already conditioned by long economic depression to make do with less. America's prolonged indulgence now, what Brokaw describes as a long period of "taking from the cup without giving back", has been marked by a sense of entitlement, a belief that borrowed money and material abundance are our birthright, and that sacrifice equates with self-denial.

He also offered compelling reference to a time when physical labor and the outdoors were more a part of everyday life. He described his father as "a man educated on his own terms," with "a strong back and a good set of hands." At the family's ranch in Montana, when the grandkids were of sufficient age, Brokaw took them hiking off trail to a distant cabin. They saw bear and elk, and slept where no ambient urban light softens the night, and darkness is near absolute. Precious few have the opportunity for such an unfiltered encounter with the land from which America's greatness grew.

There is a tendency to let ourselves off the hook. As each crisis shakes the country--9/11, ballooning debt, the economic meltdown of 2008, and the gathering chaos of climate change--a false refrain sounds, that nobody saw it coming. America has long had people with the training, imagination and insight needed to look into the future and see trouble ahead. Up to now they have been largely ignored. One can hope that Tom Brokaw will be an exception, that his writing and deep voice will not be absorbed into the background rumble of the status quo, but actually reach minds that have not been reached on any other wavelength.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rethinking News Coverage of Wildfires

The traditional coverage of western wildfires offers a prime example of how consumers of the news are not informed about the underlying forces that drive tragedy. If kept unaware of the underlying forces, people will be unlikely to support changes in policy that would help reduce those tragedies, and so we are destined to have a perpetual stream of articles detailing the latest tragedy caused by wildfires.

Sunday's Trenton Times, 11.20.11, offers a typical Associated Press story about a wildfire in Reno Nevada destroying 32 homes. The article answers the usual questions of what, where, when and who. Victims and damage are tallied, and heroes cheered. The warlike imagery describes a territorial battle between people and nature. "Firefighters made large advances against the blaze that sent nearly 10,000 people from their homes in the middle of the night and sent flames licking the edges of the region's mountain roads."

Where these articles leave readers uninformed is in answering the question "why?". This particular article offers possible causes: a downed power line or a homeless encampment. But though one of these may have actually started the fire, it doesn't explain why so much damage was done.

Most people are unaware that fire is a natural and often beneficial force in nature. Many types of trees, grasses and herbs are adapted to survive periodic fire and even depend upon it. American Indians used fire to create more open, productive landscapes that attracted wildlife with their nutrient-rich regrowth.

Where periodic fire is a natural component of the landscape, home building is a risky proposition, in much the same way that building in a floodplain courts disaster. People compound the risk by building homes with wooden shingles, or allowing highly combustible vegetation to grow close to their homes. In woodlands where natural, low-level fires used to sweep through periodically, consuming dead wood and pine needles, the presence of homes requires suppression of those beneficial fires. Dead plant matter in the woods then accumulates to dangerous levels, eventually fueling the sort of massive, uncontrollable, destructive wildfires we end up reading about.

In the past, one or another news organization would run an article explaining these deeper ecological realities. This was particularly true in 1988, when the summer-long fires in Yellowstone National Park led journalists to dig beneath the default storyline. But, particularly as news budgets have diminished, news coverage has narrowed back to the default storyline, presenting wildland fire as a destructive force victimizing innocent homeowners. It is the repetition of that storyline that powers people's misperceptions, and wastes countless teachable moments.

Back in the 1990's, I sent letters to the Associated Press, alerting them to the misleading storyline that drove their coverage of wildfires. Though one editor responded, there was no change in the approach to coverage. Now, with news budgets greatly diminished, and competition creating ever more pressure to generate dramatic copy, there is even less likelihood of reform.

Reality undermines the simple storyline of evil fire and innocent victims. The failure to convey that underlying reality about some distant fire may seem of little note, but understanding the role people play in magnifying nature's destructiveness is fundamental to understanding the even greater tragedy of climate change.
Traditional coverage of wildfires, then, leaves people unaware of underlying causes and thereby increases the nation's vulnerability to future disasters.

Note: Another A.P. article termed the Reno fire--more typical of August than a cold November night--the "largest 'urban' wild land fire in Reno's history." As freak weather events become increasingly common in the U.S. and elsewhere, the governor offered what is becoming a cliche, "I don't think anybody ever anticipated we'd have an incident like this at this point in the year." The governor and others might not be taken so much by surprise if the drivers of disaster--home construction in flammable landscapes combined with climate destabilization--were more frequently mentioned in news coverage.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Flushing Outdated Information Out of Public Discourse

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, in an attack on regulation of light bulbs, recently resurrected old complaints about low-flow toilets. In a Gail Collins column in the NY Times, he is quoted as saying, “You busybodies always want to tell us how we can live our lives better. I’ve been waiting for 20 years to talk about how bad these toilets are.”

What we really need is a way to flush unsubstantiated assertions out of the national discourse. Though he should know better, given his leadership position, Mr. Paul is suffering from a common malady--a point of view based on limited and very dated information.

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, editorial boards and comedians seized on the issue as an example of regulatory excess. I researched the issue and was surprised to learn that the national regulation had actually been requested by the industry, and that many companies had responded by designing effective toilets that conformed to the regulations. In the last couple years, companies have developed designs that use even less water and yet far outperform the pre-1997 toilets.

There are two stories here. One is that government regulation can challenge industry to innovate in ways it would not have otherwise. The other aspect is that it is foolhardy to base critiques on old information. While falsely criticizing government regulation, Mr. Paul unwittingly casts aspersions on a constituency he likely supports: the many companies who responded to regulation by designing better products for their customers.

Monday, November 01, 2010


"Broke...broke....broke....broke...broke..."      That's my favorite quote from the Stewart/Colbert rally on the Washington Mall this past Saturday. When Stewart shifted from comedy to a heartfelt call for sanity in today's political discourse, he ended one of his sentences with the word "broke", which then could be heard echoing down the mall, as if the government buildings were voicing their concurrence with his sentiment.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Government-Business Relationship

I used to think of government's regulation of the business sector as similar to the role of referees in sports. Government lays down the rules, draws the lines within which the game must be played, and then keeps the players honest. Ideally, the rules and oversight will set limits that channel rather than overly inhibit the players' energy.

But the recent government bailouts of the financial and automobile sectors suggest more of a parent-child relationship, in which the offspring object to any parental interference, only to come back for money when the going gets rough.

Mergers and the Public Interest

Now that we've been told that some financial institutions and automobile companies are "too big to fail", leading to vast bailouts at public expense, it's clear that the public has a vested interest in deciding whether corporations should be allowed to attain such a size and pervasive impact. Like trees that grow to tower over a home, the survival of the home becomes increasingly threatened. It may be a fine arrangement until the day when economic winds send the tree crashing down.

It would be interesting to see if this potential impact was even considered when mergers were creating ever larger banks and insurance companies.

Peanuts and the Economic Value of Inspectors

There's no lack of examples these days of how a lack of government oversight can be a business's worst enemy. Seems like anti-regulatory policies don't so much set corporations free to grow as give them the freedom to hang themselves.

According to an AP article, the inadequate number of state inspectors may have contributed to the outbreak of salmonella in a Georgia peanut plant. The Peanut Corporation of America now "faces mounting lawsuits and a bankruptcy filing." A useful question is how frequent were inspections at the plant, when Georgia's 60 inspectors have 16,000 sites to monitor.

The logic of self-interest would suggest that businesses will monitor themselves to avoid bad publicity. But obviously that logic fails here. Self-interest in a highly competitive world means cut corners and do whatever you can get away with.

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.