Friday, October 29, 2010

If Only People Were Perfect Nothing Would Need to be Fixed. They're Not, So What Next?

This is another post inspired by a week of work related events.  In this case I spent the day conducting surveys at a self-advocacy conference as part of our planning process.  Something that struck me was how often it was mentioned that people had to be more kind and understanding or something else about how people had to change.  This of course isn't something that is easily fixed by policy, people are what they are.  After this first, impossible, request however, they often got into particulars where we could put in some work and effort to make a real difference.

Being always obsessed with national and international politics I couldn't help but think that this is basically the exact same thing that people keep saying we need to do to make politics work better.  I keep hearing that all we need is for people to be better, more personally responsible, more involved, more giving, etc.  Here's where I think people with disabilities tend to be wiser.  They don't think there's some simple fix to this, people are what they are and it's hard to change.  They realize that changing minds and attitudes takes hard work and that to work at all it has to start early and continue for a long time.  They also realize that many people don't naturally possess the skills they need to be successful, learning these skills takes hard work and effort and won't happen on its own if we step back.

I think there are a few different things that make attitudes different.  No one is writing books justifying the prejudices of people with disabilities, they learn early that there are all kinds of people in this world and everyone won't magically start behaving how they would like others to.  They don't have the luxury of cocooning themselves in environments where the world seems to do nothing but confirm their worldview and condemn that of others.  They also learn how much of a difference the right kinds of interventions can make.  They get to see up close what happens when something works and what happens when something doesn't, so they often have strong opinions on exactly what they see happening, rather than based on some vague theory they heard on the radio or read in a book once.

I find this attitude to be generally better for actually making change happen.  No one is pretending that just changing faces is the critical element, this has happened too often to no avail.  People need to learn to think differently and the environment needs to change to make this new thinking possible.  This takes time, it takes education, it takes broad change in many areas, and there are no simple fixes.  Blaming our problems on others doesn't help, there are all sorts of people, some of them difficult to work with, and this won't ever change.  The problem isn't making the problem people go away but instead building systems that can include everyone as they are since there is no way of making people into what we want them to be.  Learn to build with what we have rather than thinking you can fix people.  People don't need to be fixed and you can't punish or reward them into become the people you want them to be.  You can change the systems within which they live their lives so that everyone can be the most they can be however.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why Cost Cutting Costs Money

My last post went on a little too long for this related idea to make it in.

A second problem resulting in big, expensive government is that constant demands for cost cutting prohibits government from making the necessary investments to save money in the longer run.  We're* constantly besieged by calls to save money.  From those that rely on our services, it's also constantly demanded that we do more.

What this results in is that all of our money ends up being dedicated to the direct provision of whatever it is we're required to do.  Sounds great, right?  Well, in practice this means that we're short shifting training, capital investments, and just about everything else that won't result in angry letters to legislators about our failings.

Of course, this costs money in the long run.  Computers don't get upgraded, far too many offices are relying on antiquated machinery and legacy software.  This means that over time it gets more difficult to share information and to use lower cost ways to communicate.  Training doesn't get finished meaning we can't keep up with best practices.  Basic infrastructure falls apart and costs more to fix later than if we had done it on schedule.  We're in constant crisis control mode meaning its hard to build for the future.

But go on, keep demanding that we somehow find savings.  Then wonder why everything seems to simultaneously get worse while costing more just to keep running.  If you don't maintain things properly, and pay for it to be done properly, you always end up with a higher bill down the line.  Giving some money to actually invest, and letting us know this will be available when necessary,** will go a long way to both shrinking government and making it more efficient in the long run.

* Favored bureaucracies, like the military, don't really have this problem and can be pretty profligate.  This is the exception, not the rule.

**Because of these pressures to save money you get an unfortunate situation where when we do get an increase in funding to do needed upgrades and maintenance we're very tenacious about keeping that money, even when the work gets done.  There's a lot of reasons for this, but a big one is that we know how hard it is to get a needed increase so we'd rather have more resources than we need than not have the resources we need when we need it.  If we could be reasonably sure that needed funding increases would be approved for maintenance or upgrading these pressures would be much less.

Small Government for Bureaucrats

I had meant to get off the topic of small government for other subjects but a week of business related events and meetings has left me with some thoughts on small government from the perspective of the bureaucracy.

We see the inefficiencies of government up close, and to us these inefficiencies look radically different than they do to the public at large.  While the public rants about waste, fraud, and abuse we see up close that the waste is the result of the witch hunt for fraud and abuse and the completely insane level of accountability required by this accountability. 

From my experiences in both the lower rungs of private industry and the public sector I am amazed on a daily basis how much effort is put in by the public sector in trying to eliminate what the private sector writes off as shrinkage without a second thought.  But we can't avoid this, we can't simply give an expense account to an employee while traveling for fear that its use might be misinterpreted.  Every penny spent must be documented and looked over by what seems an infinite number of eyes.  It's insane, we know, but live in constant fear of a public obsessed by fraud and abuse so are terrified that an employee at a conference might be seen in a bar with friends from the area afterward.  This kind of nonsense just doesn't exist in the private sector and it only exists in the public sector because the public demands impossible to fulfill expectations and has been convinced that rampant abuse exists by those that politically benefit.  The truth is that we live on a leash that is virtually strangling us and that anyone with experience in the private sector knows is counter-productive and wastes heaps of public money eliminating a tiny fraction of fraud that is a natural part of any human organization.  This is the dirty secret of government that no politician, or bureaucrat for that matter, is willing to admit to publicly (and I probably wouldn't either if this blog weren't anonymous, you don't say this kind of thing), government waste and byzantine rules is largely the result of the hunt for fraud and abuse.  Use sensible rules like private industry would and government would rapidly become more efficient.

Another dirty secret no public official wants to admit to is that a great deal of inefficiency is due to antiquated legislation.  But heaven forbid that our enabling laws ever get brought up again for renewal, the public is protesting in favor of 18th century legislation not demanding new legislation so that we can start running things like we're actually in the 21st century instead of some timeless limbo where laws are based on Platonic principles.  There's an endless stream of commonsense stuff that we just can't do because we're trying to act within legislation and accountability procedures that are decades old.  What is obvious to do today didn't even exist when the laws we're accountable to were written.  We're trying to implement laws that make no sense in the modern context and waste incredible amounts of time trying to make something that would actually work today be defensible in legal terms that were written when mainframe was synonymous with computer, and for some agencies (not ours, thankfully) enabling legislation that may be older than this.

Unsurprisingly, between these two factors we get byzantine, incomprehensible procedures that lead to massive inefficiency.  We know what the public is demanding, and after we finish arguing back that we can't do whatever commonsense thing that you're suggesting, we go back and bitch to our colleagues how stupid it is that we can't do it.  We know perfectly well that a well placed few thousand dollars, and in extreme cases maybe a well placed $20, could save the state tens of thousands but we have accountability procedures that prefer that tens of thousands be wasted above board rather than a few hundred being spent that might sometimes be diverted to fraud, even if no where near often enough to equal that tens of thousands.  And guess what, we know from experience that we'll get nothing for saving that tens of thousands of dollars and will get punished very heavily for a few hundred that instead goes towards a scam.

The problem lies in a public that is so hostile to government that sensible reform becomes impossible and that we have to continually make major exertions  to prevent even the semblance of fraud or abuse.  Another problem is a public that demands that those working in government be angels, rather than human beings.  We can legitimately be held to somewhat higher standards than the private sector but with anything there are diminishing returns, there will always be some fraud and abuse and once it's low enough eliminating each additional increment is prohibitively expensive.  We're deep into that expense today.  Combine this with the ideal type of government based on eternal principles, rather than a continuously evolving social entity needing renewal for our rapidly changing social conditions, and you get a dysfunctional system constantly trying to retrofit completely obsolete legislation to get tasks done that were inconceivable when it was written.  The lack of trust in government, and the lack of demand for modern government, rather than government from an ideal past, promises that government will be big and bloated.  It has to be to make the ancient machinery work.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Small Government Part 2

Overnight an easier way of writing about this occurred to me.  This could probably replace my earlier, somewhat messier, post but I figure I'll just leave both up since I already wrote it.

The idea of small government is used to hold several concepts, and to express several fears, that are often contradictory.  On its own, the concept has grown so much that it is entirely useless and cannot be meaningfully used in a policy context because it is impossible to tell what exactly it is that people are asking for when they use it.  Separating out the components gives us some meaningful traction.
  1. Local government as opposed to centralized government.  Small government is often used to argue that government should be closer to the people whenever possible.  
  2. Government as opposed to private sector.  This focuses on competition between the private sector and government for resources.  Two things are worth mentioning here.  You have to take transfer payments out for this conception to make sense, the government gets nothing for these transfers so it is not meaningfully competing for resources here, the competition is between those that receive transfers and those who don't, not the private sector and government.  The second is that I think this rests on an idea of substitutabilty that I don't think is actually present and resource constraints that aren't as extreme as this concept holds.  It makes sense at extremes but I think to a fairly large extent government employs people that find public work more congenial and will do better work than they will in the private sector.  There is some competition but I think this view ignores that people are sufficiently different that the more different kinds of structure we have to employ people usefully the more we can maximize people's potential contributions.
  3. Government's power relative to other entities.  This is probably the least frequently mentioned and the one that worries me the most.  This is the government's ability to compel behavior through powerful police forces, complex regulations, and the military.  This can be decreased through laws restricting the use of wiretapping, creation of oversight bodies, etc.  It is generally increased by reducing the amount of laws restricting government.
  4. Government as a burden.  This is the extent to which people experience the presence of government in tangible ways (not as background) in their daily lives.  Things like the burden of filling out tax forms, regulatory burdens if you want to start a new business, the number of times you have to fill out the same forms when you move (think DMV, voter registration, changing your address with the post office), etc.  These things are what makes government feel like a repressive burden.  Solving these issues are often opposed by opponents of other forms of big government, a centralized database would solve a lot of paperwork issues, a more streamlined tax system would make government seem less invasive (which is a problem for those concerned about government as % of GDP), more centralization in general would make interactions with various jurisdictions easier (think of the pain of getting a speeding ticket out of town, if this was centralized there would be less need to interact with the local court).  
And, in case it's not already clear, I'd just like to add that with all of these other anxieties and meanings about the size of government it makes no sense to throw entitlements into the pot as well.  The subject is just too much different from the other concerns to be properly placed in the context of the debate about the size of government.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010

    Small Government, What Does It Mean?

    Small government is a very important idea in American politics.  I'll confess it's an idea that I don't much care for since I believe it provides no meaningful information in its most common conceptions and is based on a poor understanding of how social institutions operate, I prefer sector by sector breakdowns by percentage of GDP and then simply asking if we're using the correct institutions to provide these things or are the institutions we're using inefficient (so for example, we could ask if we're providing enough poor relief, if not, if the mix of private, public, government, and other institutions is supplying the right mix of resources and then trying to get the expenditure right as a % of GDP; I think it's misleading to worry if this aid is being supplied by private companies, non-profits, organizations such as the Catholic Church, or government, it's which does it best that matters).

    Still, I realize that this is an important concept and needs some exploration.  When people talk about small government my observation is that they in fact mean several different things by the term, several of them contradictory.  Some of these distinctions I do find meaningful, it's the overall concept that I find problematic.

    1. The most common concept of government size is how much government is spending as a % of GDP.  It's easy, clear, and marketable.  It's also entirely meaningless.  There's a big difference between government spending that is transfer payments and government spending that is leading to employment by the government or the acquisition of capital by the government.  Government spending is also dependent on the basket of goods demanded by the populace, in wartime conditions for instance government spending as % of GDP will soar without necessarily leading to long term social and economic changes as a result of this spending (it may, but there are better places to look for this than share of GDP).  While there are some academic cases where this may be a useful value for large N studies, as far as actual policymaking is concerned there is always a better, and almost as easy, way of conceiving of the government's size than headline GDP.
    2. The second most common way I see size of government used is as a form of shorthand for arguments for decentralization.  This is a perfectly sensible critique, one I rarely agree with but entirely respect.  It is also somewhat contradictory with the first concept of government size since decentralized government is usually more expensive since it tends to replicate necessary functions across multiple jurisdictions that could instead be centralized.  This has its benefits and drawbacks.  I tend to feel that in many cases we're better off more centralized since it is more important to ease factor mobility (or in less academic terms, make it easy for someone to pick up and move and possibly start up a new business without running into unexpected differences in things like business laws, health insurance, government services, etc.) than it is to protect local differences but acknowledge that on this factor the arguments are equally strong on both sides and this is solely a matter of preference and uncertain projections of future conditions. (This subject may be worth a full post on later)
    3. Another, somewhat less frequent way of conceiving of government size is to look at the government workforce, and to a lesser extent, government capital holdings.  I don't have strong opinions on this subject but I do see a lot of sense in conceiving of government size in the terms of people employed and government owned land and capital.  There are sensible arguments to be made that we don't want too much of our labor force to be government employees.  This can also contradict #2, shrinking the government workforce can often be achieved by consolidating jurisdictions and unifying and streamlining agencies. [Governments expenditures less entitlements is another, and better, way of looking at this.  I see number of government employees separated out a lot rhetorically so thought the messier conception initially given deserved first mention since this is the usual way it comes up]
    4. Government size can also be conceived of as its ability to compel behavior.  This is hard to quantify but is basically the degree to which we adapt our behavior to conform to government mandates.  This can be business regulations, actions not taken due to fear of government reprisal (smoking pot, gay people getting married), number of people imprisoned, burden of complying with government mandated activities (auto registration, taxes), etc.  This also frequently contradicts conception 2, since more decentralized government is more likely to lead to additional regulatory burden (like replication of documents, need for multiple points of information gathering where a more centralized system could update across multiple agencies and jurisdictions).  The size and strength of the military was also historically thought of this way, though that is currently unfashionable.
    5. There are of course other ways of conceiving of the size of government but most of these are marginal and more for academic purposes.  Counting the number of government agencies, or departments, cabinet positions, etc. all have their purposes but aren't terribly enlightening.
    The main point I'm trying to get across is that while virtually everyone claims they want a small government, from a Tea Partier to the stoned kid cutting class to protest the WTO, there is little agreement over what is meant.  In many cases, people hold entirely contradictory ideas, like wanting to reduce the government workforce while giving more local control, which will inevitably expand government employees, and likely regulatory burden, due to simple duplication of duties and regulations (which isn't to say that someone might want to do both separately while realizing decentralization will increase government employment, but this is the exception).  So while small government is a great slogan for electioneering it's also one that doesn't give a meaningful mandate or policy response, since you don't necessarily know what voters want when they shout this.  To use my local Tea Party chapter blog as an example, they seemed to be rather confused why a Democrat like Cuomo would be so favorable to small government efforts like consolidating small jurisdictions to eliminate government waste and redundancies.  Of course, from a different perspective this was a centralizing action and could as easily be called big government.  The entire concept of small government is much more easily used if decentralization is treated as an entirely separate issue, though I am far more used to seeing it mixed in with other uses of the concept of government size.

    A secondary point is that I don't really think entitlement payments are meaningful when discussing government size.  They have nothing to do with the scope or power of the government nor do they effect the relative powers of federal vs. local government.  Since the government is obligated to pay these out it can't use existing payments to buy votes nor can it meaningfully withhold them to increase its power.  Overseeing these funds aren't particularly large as drivers of direct government employment (except the VA which is a special case) so don't much impact other measures of the size of government.  Entitlements are best thought of as an entirely separate area that doesn't have a meaningful impact on the size of government since they are simply funds that pass through government with little overhead.  The big difference between these expenditures and other expenditures is the government has no discretion over them and doesn't actually spend the funds, any more than your insurance company spends its money when paying you a claim.  It's a liability but one so tightly bounded by contract that it provides no meaningful power.  If you're still doubting this, think if it would be meaningfully different if we instead gave this portion of our taxes to the Catholic Church or a private for profit company for later distribution.  While I can't say there would be no differences, I don't think there would be many.  A separate discussion can of course be had specific to entitlements, and should, but this should not get complicated by discussions of government size or power that are not relevant to the subject.

    [Edit: An overview of the academic literature on the subject is available at the St. Louis Fed  This unsurprisingly differs from what I said above.  I think separating out transfers are important mostly because transfers do little to increase the power or influence of government and should be separated out from the concepts of power and influence that seem to be behind the anxiety people feel to a large and strong government.  Conflating these issues, as small government rhetoric always does, just confuses the situation and makes having a rational conversation about either government size and power or entitlements impossible.]

    Saturday, October 23, 2010

    American Success in Perspective

    This is back to what I considered the original plan for these posts, start big and start narrowing down to particular issues.

    While it is less frequently mentioned today than it was a decade ago, America remains far and away the most powerful country on Earth.  Superpower, or even hyperpower, are still used to refer to our relative power position.  This isn't inaccurate but, as I do sometimes see implied, this isn't a reason to believe that America's policies have been remarkably better than other countries, or even that it is our policies or institutions that have led us to this power position.

    Let's put some perspective on America's rise.  The former European powers were all very small.  Some of them had large imperial territories but the form of imperialism used to control these far flung territories required substantial resource investments from the home territories to maintain.  While this investment often paid off, they were far more intrinsically brittle than societies that could rely on extensive home territories for their power.  What they had to rely on was a historically unique confluence of several factors, the modern state, the industrial revolution, nationalism, great demographics, democracy in some cases, and a few other factors I'm probably forgetting.  These factors weren't shared by other societies they were competing against, though in situations such as Japan's where some of these factors did arise a competitor was quick to arise, and they were able to exploit the superiority of these developments to gain a historically unique position.

    During this phase, the US competed remarkably well.  We made mistakes, so did everyone else, but it is hard to say that our 18th and 19th century history isn't remarkable for the balance in favor of achievements over mistakes.  During this period, we also successfully expanded to have a land area and population that distinguished us from all the other western powers, though distance prevented this from being decisive in this period.  While getting into specifics would take far more time and space then I am prepared to give the subject, in this period I am perfectly willing to endorse the idea that relatively good policies and decisions gave the US a decisive lead over other societies.  This extends up till WWII.  It is important to remember of course that this success wasn't against some absolute sense of what makes societies successful, it was success against a set of particular competitors that simply made worse decisions than we did.

    After WWII is where I think that some perspective on our achievements relative to our power is essential.  The European powers had been decisively humbled, the Soviet Union was our only competitor.  Let's be honest about this competition though. Only the US and the Soviet Union had the geographic expanse, population, economic development, and diplomatic position (in the form of the Soviet allied Eastern Bloc and US NATO, the presence of both of these organizations is owed to the first three factors however) to be in a competitive position.  No other state has been in truly competitive position in the second half of the 20th century.  Japan came close, but its limited geographic base is a severe restriction in long term power competition.  Other states don't even come close.

    What we have to admit to ourselves though, is that we were competing with a state that was operating under a fundamentally flawed political and economic ideology.  It had the components it needed to compete but it wasn't using these components in a sensible fashion.  Winning the Cold War had two essential victory conditions for the US, not implode and not cause a nuclear war.  Only the second of these involved any difficulty, we don't deserve any awards for achieving the first.  The Soviet Union was doomed from its inception because it was a society based on a theory, rather than on reality.  These always fail given time.

    Given this perspective, winning the Cold War has to be seen as not being in any way an endorsement of the American system, it's simply a condemnation of the Soviet one.  Our own achievements are harder to assess, we simply don't have any societies worth comparing ourselves to for the past 50 years.  I think we have some very good reasons to doubt that we've been making good decisions for the last 40 years or so, not that we didn't make some real doozies before that too, the WWII era decision to put so much of our health insurance benefits in the hands of employers was a bad call with very far reaching effects. 

    I'll be getting into specific issues, both achievements and flaws in later posts.  But when assessing our modern record, it is important to keep in mind the basic disparity we have in natural resources relative to other states.  The only state comparable in its resource endowments was held back by an insane ideology, those that were on an equal playing field ideologically and institutionally had far less in the way of natural resources.  To say our successes are remarkable because of actions that we took as a state we have to think in terms of relative resource endowments.  For instance, the next closest developed nation to ourselves in terms of population is Japan, with about 125 million inhabitants to our close to 300 million.  Saying that we have more of the top Nobel prize winners than they do, or top medical specialists, or top universities, or biggest companies isn't at all impressive.  With more than twice the population I certainly hope we do.  Saying that we have more than 2 1/2 times the number of each of these things, well, that is something to be proud of.  But remember, in this large and wealthy of a country saying that we have more of anything isn't something to be proud of, it's to be expected simply by virtue of our size.  To say we've been a top performer in our position it takes more than just being the best at something, we have to be the best by quite a large margin.  Anything less not only fails the test of American exceptionalism, it fails to recognize the basic facts of our place in the world.

    Of course, we also have to recognize this phase of our existence is coming to a close.  In a few short decades we won't be competing with countries that we out-compete by default simply by virtue of our size or their insanity.  We will be competing against several states that are comparable in size and in the basic components that make up modernity.  If we want to be a proud, successful country we need to stop patting ourselves on the back for defeating the feeble and realize we're going to have to work hard and make sacrifices to be competitive.   I believe we've been rather self-indulgent over the last 40 years.  We've taken the natural results of the size of our population, the richness of our natural resources, the security of our position, and the favorable diplomatic and political environment and mistaken this for a confirmation of the success of our actions and policies.  This pleasant environment is ending.  Our policies and decisions no longer are being made in a world where we win simply by being who we are, now we're going to have to prove to the world that what we do actually works and we'll have real competitors against which we can be compared.  The time where we can simply experiment with policies with little thought to long term consequences is ending, we're going to have to honestly face the results of our policy decisions and make course corrections when things don't play out right.  Results must trump ideology or the American superpower will rapidly become a footnote in history.  A world where we're competing against real powers in Europe, China, India, and regional power blocs that are likely to form in South America centered on Brazil and possibly in South-East Asia isn't one that we can ignore reality and survive in.  We have to pay our debts, do what works, and pay careful attention to adapting ourselves to paying careful attention to the world outside our borders.  There's a lot of potential in this world, and I believe it will be a better world, but it's a much more competitive one that won't allow us to be self-indulgent.

    Friday, October 22, 2010

    A Very Good Article on the Politics of the VAT in the US

    This article gives an interesting take on the politics of taxes in the US.  I'm a little sceptical that the tax problems the US has can be as firmly attributed to the Republicans as this article does, it seems a lot of our tax problems predate the changes in Republican orthodoxy mentioned in the article.  However, it does seem to be a significant barrier to fixing a lot of our taxation problems.  What it has to say about the reaction of many Republicans to Mitch Daniels talking sense on taxes and suggesting a VAT is also very interesting.  It's worth reading but without knowing more about the history of taxation in the US I'm hesitant to comment too much on it.  We are going to need a little less orthodoxy if we're going to tackle our country's problems on the revenue side, there's just no getting around this.

    [Hat Tip: Economix]

    Part 2: What's Wrong with America's Elites?

    An issue that I'm even more concerned about than what I covered in my last post is the tendency of elite's to create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that those qualities the elites value lead to success because the elites value those qualities.  To a large extent, these qualities are usually of some value, the problem lies in that whatever a given set of valued qualities are needed to fulfill the roles valued by elites there will always still be important roles that require qualities other than what the elites value.

    In the case of the US, I see the set of qualities being valued by our elite as being those needed to be a successful businessman and entrepreneur.  This is probably very adaptive, I believe we need rather more businessmen and entrepreneurs as elites than we need other character types.  However, in certain roles the kind of character traits needed to be a successful entrepreneur can be seriously maladaptive.

    I'll admit this is more of an anecdotal personal observation than something I have firm evidence for.  Still, something that struck me during the banking crisis was how often the bankers defended the huge payments they were getting by arguing about how they worked very hard and stressful jobs and put in 80 hour weeks.  My gut reaction was that this is exactly the kind of person I don't want handling my money.  I'm very conservative on financial matters and very risk adverse.  I don't want someone that is taking high risks, very success focused, and probably sleep deprived handling my money.  I want a boring, family-man, accountant type that goes home at 5 P.M every day and thinks driving 2 m.p.h over the speed limit is daring.  Someone that hates risk, hates debt, and will watch every penny.

    But we don't select our elites on these criteria.  We select them for more entrepreneurial qualities.  We look for risk takers, people willing to work hard, and people willing to sacrifice other aspects of their life to their careers.  In business and new industry this is what we want.  We probably don't want this as often in bankers (I'd add doctors and lawyers but they're a bit outside the elites I'm discussing here), or most political offices (the presidency would be a possible exception).  I see this as a significant flaw in our system.  There are important roles that we need filled that simply aren't well adapted for the risk taking type.  But to get to the higher levels of society, we select strongly for people willing to risk high levels of debt, focus very narrowly on their careers, are willing to work very, very hard, and that tend to be very highly specialized.  For many roles, this is exactly what we need.  But it is important to remember that the best may not necessarily be the brightest, and that even the best and brightest may not be the hardest working.  Our method of selecting the elite results in very good people but it requires certain qualities that may not be the best fit for a particular role.  Finding ways of creating alternate paths into the American elite could only benefit our society.

    I especially like the idea of forcing bankers to accept 40 hour weeks and not hiring anyone to a top banking spot that has high levels of debt.  Not going to happen but I think the financial system is the place where high risk profit is ultimately least appropriate because externalities fall particularly disparately on the public at large relative to the person causing the fallout.  And the rewards vice versa.

    Thursday, October 21, 2010

    Part 1: What's Wrong with America's Elites?

    I had meant to take this up rather later, after addressing schools, but the Economist's Schumpeter blog has been writing on the subject so it seems current.

    There is currently a very strong current of anti-elitism in America.  While much of this seems to me unjustified, I don't believe all of it is.  The problem with any elite is that it will necessarily set the conditions of success in a way that self-perpetuates itself, even if not necessarily consciously so.  This is a problem because it leads to a lack of diversity of viewpoint and selects people that match the profiles of the existing elite more than they do the needs of the current society.  This of course isn't entirely avoidable though I do think recognizing it and mitigating the effects of this is within the capacity of the human animal.

    In America, the particular quality that bothers me about the elite is its complete intolerance of failure, at least failure early in life.  While I don't disagree that the elite is composed of extremely talented people from extremely diverse origins, it's remarkable the extent in which the elite's background is similar once they are past their origins.  Pretty much invariably it consists of over-achiever in high school, remarkable college record followed by elite college education, and topped off with a pretty smooth progress up the career ladder.

    What you don't see is someone becoming part of the elite after, self-educating themselves and doing odd jobs including as a ferryman until reaching 24 (Lincoln), resigning from law school to chase women around France not attaining a serious position until the ripe old age of 32 (Bismarck), or years of being unable to find a teaching position followed by years of low level government employment (Einstein).  These are just the first three to occur to me, previously it seemed less uncommon for someone to rise to prominence later in life.  We still allow this in the arts and a few other places, but few that are important in politics or other influential posts have these kinds of backgrounds.  Not that such men were ever common but the system that selects the elite seems far more unforgiving of failure, and later redemption, than it ever did in the past.

    This, of course, is at a time when most of us expect to go through many jobs in our life and when education has become more important than ever but difficult to access at elite levels if the standard path of elite preparation is not followed.  There is an appearance that it has become very difficult to join the elite unless you are young, and either privileged, or dedicated enough, to be able pay dues in the form of unpaid internships or other activities that stand out from the crowd.  A brilliant mind that led a distracted youth would have little chance today of joining the elite if they had spent their youth chasing women around the country working odd jobs, well unless they happened to be doing this in Asia or Africa. 

    This matters for two reasons.  First of all, it neglects a large part of the talent pool.  There are a lot of people that went on to be very successful despite dissolute youths, it is very hard for these individuals to break into the elite today (unless of course the parents are well connected, which would have been a requirement earlier as well, still it is the less well off that seem to me more likely to fall into this category than the ones that grew up with natural role models for the modern elite).  Second, this leads to too many people in positions of power that haven't experienced the kinds of hardships common in the adult lives of Americans.  It may be true they faced deprivation when they were young.  But did they have the experience of not being able to find a job or of having to work for years outside their field?  How about switching career paths in mid-life?

    This of course shouldn't be an insurmountable problem.  There are other ways of choosing elites.  Consciousness of this could lead to a greater focus on giving people a second chance at education and making it easier to attend college while raising a family (extending unemployment benefits as long as someone is attending college would be a good first start).  More means of acquiring needed certifications would help.  In general, the problem isn't with the elites we are getting now, most of them are great people, the problem, and the resentment, is there are a lot of ways that someone worthy can be excluded.  Admitting this, and dealing with it, would at least help mitigate the resentment Americans are feeling.

    Of course, on a purely symbolic level, appointing someone to a prominent position that didn't get their degree till later and that experienced significant bouts of unemployment would probably help quite a bit.  There may be someone like this in the administration but if so, they are doing little to promote the fact

    Some Preliminaries: Politics has Consequences

    This is the last of these before I start zeroing in on some topics more particular to the US. 

    Something that strikes me a great deal with political discussions is how often it takes the frame of either simple tribalism, liberals are socialists vs conservatives are theocrats for example, or how often it is treated as simply some sort of complete abstraction where individuals struggle over a distribution of resources with little in the way of real world consequences to specific distributions beyond one group getting stronger and another weaker.

    While I understand the potential usefulness of these attitudes towards rallying support or analysis (respectively) I think it is critical to remember that many policies have powerful long run impacts.  There are a few that no doubt are purely distributional, these policies will distribute resources among various groups and reflect particular visions of society without any society-wide consequences beyond this distribution.

    These policies are the exception.  At the end of most of them, there may be a child later suffering long term unemployment due to insufficient nourishment or medical care early in life leading to long term deficiencies, slower economic growth leaving skilled people unemployed with broken families as a result, and on a broader level, mass unrest, political collapse, and war.  These aren't often the consequences of a single decision but rather a series of them.  Regarding many of our political debates, in the longer run one viewpoint, or a small handful, is correct, the rest are wrong.  If we follow the wrong policies we will not be able to compete with nations pursuing the correct ones.  We will fall behind, our standard of living will fall, and the consequences will eventually be huge.

    This is why it is critical to step outside of partisanship and attempt to ask what our problems really are and how do we fix them.  Sticking to political principles or a belief in how society should work is not enough, while I have the right, and perhaps the duty, to sacrifice my own success for deeper principles or beliefs I do not have the same right to apply this thinking to others through the political system.  There is no justice in picking a principled course of action that results in harm, or even death, to others.  It is rare to have a political decision that will not result in harm to someone; this gives us an obligation to think about the long term consequences of our actions to seek to minimize the extent to which the actions we take will cause this harm to others, which is something we have no right to do.  Of course, at this level inaction is the same as action, failing to pursue a policy that would mitigate this harm imposes the same moral obligation on us that taking an action that causes would.  Which is why it is so important not to prove any of our ideas right but to instead focus on getting the right idea, no matter how much this contradicts our existing beliefs.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010

    Ideology and History

    One, of rather many, ways of interpreting ideas and history is through the great debates of the time.  For the twentieth century I think I can rather uncontroversially say the debates were democracy vs. authoritarianism (three round match here, democracy vs. monarchy, democracy vs. fascism, and democracy vs. communist totalitarianism) and socialism vs. capitalism (pretty decisively settled with the Soviet Union's collapse). 

    It's very important to remember that these aren't debates that frame all of history.  I'd argue that socialism vs. capitalism is a debate brought about specifically by the rapid change of the industrial revolution.  While it retains some force, I'd say we've extracted pretty much everything we can from this particular debate.  It turns out that this isn't a defining way of organizing society, try to organize society strictly by this philosophy and you get nothing besides eventual social collapse.  Instead, we have various forms of mixed economies and it seems increasingly dated as a way of classifying much of anything.  It's rapidly becoming as archaic as debates about religious identity and society would be today.  No one is going to argue that it's a critical state interest if our citizenry ascribes to the monophysite or Nestorian nature of Christ or even that Catholic hierarchy is necessary for social cohesion.  People fought and died over these beliefs because they believed they were essential to social and political identity.  While few would deny religion is important today, even fewer would argue that it is an essential component of social organization.  We can see that these beliefs simply had little relation to social outcomes.

    Today, it seems obvious to all but a few academic theoreticians and idealogues that the debate of socialism vs. capitalism just isn't  descriptive of what makes societies successful or not.  It may remain a useful category for classifying certain economic beliefs or policies but in the end it is not an either/or choice and policies must be judged on individual merits, not on their place on the axis of socialism and capitalism.  It is also increasingly obvious that a lot of economic theory and policy don't fit well within this frame, people may have fought and died over these ideas but the social reality has roared past the point where these remain useful concepts.

    Democracy vs. authoritarianism by contrast can be seen as an iteration of the classic debate about paternalism.  I believe it's undeniable that people have a certain degree of paternalistic instinct and an ingrained sense of hierarchy, these things just seem to form naturally.  However, at any given time there seems to be a debate over what aspects of life should be subject to paternalistic authority and which instead need the consent of the group.  In classical times, this was a debate about hereditary aristocracy vs. the masses.  In the middle ages it seemed more suppressed, but the relative freedom of the cities vs. the nobility seems to perhaps be a roughly equivalent frame (one that wasn't really decisively resolved, we just passed beyond the point it made sense).  By the Enlightenment we get the most famous iteration of this, liberalism vs. divine right.  Then of course, twin domestic and international debates of universal vs. limited suffrage and democracy vs. monarchy then authoritrianism.

    Today, I see this debate largely settled.  Very few argue we should look to authoritarian states for guidance, in authoritarian states by contrast many argue they should look more to democracies.  The iteration of this debate that I think has been forming over the past few decades seems to be about the wealthy investor vs. democratic decision making (I really need a catchier term for this).  I call this paternalism because it closely resembles earlier iterations of this.  Some subset of powerful individuals has a special quality that renders their ability to understand a situation necessarily superior to another group of individuals not so empowered.  In this case, people with money have a proper understanding of social return on say, a tunnel, that people that don't have the money but might say, live in New Jersey but have jobs in NYC, don't have.  In this view, if the policy was a good idea the powerful would have found a way to make money off of it and done it themselves.  Since they can't, then obviously the not rich who want it must be wrong about its ultimate benefits.

    While in the case given I obviously have an opinion on which side is right and which wrong, in general I don't think this particular debate has a clear answer.  I do think these debates on paternalism in society move a society forward, however, I believe they must be recognized for what they are.  This is a debate of the same kind that democracy vs. authoritarianism is.  It's about whether some people have special capacities by virtue of their social role (whether some people have special knowledge because they have spent a great deal of time learning about said subject would be a different debate, though still paternalistic.  As with other debates about paternalism, the paternalist often has a point, the problem is when it is taken too far) or if instead people who don't have that position can have just as strong arguments in favor of it.  Of course, as in other iterations the waters get muddied by those who benefit from obscuring the terms of debate.  In the end though, I don't really see how this is any different from other iterations of this particular battle.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010

    Some Preliminaries: On Determining What is Natural

    I'm lingering on the subject of what is natural for a bit because it seems fairly common for a political belief to be defended because something is human nature or to develop a  theory based upon the notion that something is an intrinsic trait of humanity.  While I do agree that there is no getting around human nature, I believe there are very, very few things that are actually human nature and very, very many things that people mistake for human nature that are in fact cultural.  I also have strong doubts that enough of human social behavior is intrinsic and natural to base a society on.  Most things called human nature seem to me to instead be culturally specific beliefs rather than ones that transcend particular cultural values.

    In the words of Ibn Khaldun (as translated by Franz Rosenthal and edited by N.J. Dawood anyway) many:

    disregarded the changes in conditions and in the customs of nations and races that the passing of time had brought about.  Thus, they presented historical information about dynasties and stories of events from the earliest times as mere forms without substance, blades without scabbards; as knowledge that must be considered ignorance, because it is not known what of it is extraneous and what is genuine...  It concerns species, the genera of which are not taken into consideration, and whose specific differences are not verified.  They neglected the importance of change over the generations in their treatment of (historical material)...
    Ibn, Khaldūn, Franz Rosenthal, and N. J. Dawood. The Muqaddimah, an Introduction to History. [Princeton, N.J.]: Princeton UP, 1969.

    Words as true today as in the 14th century.*

    So, I regard a simple test as appropriate whenever anyone claims anything to be human nature.  Very little passes it.  That test is that whatever is being claimed as human nature or as a principle or foundational or anything of the sort must be shown to:

    a) Emerge independently in multiple time frames
    b) Emerge independently in multiple cultural frames
    c) Emerge independently in multiple geographic regions

    Anything that does not pass these three tests should be considered to be particular, rather than general.  Of course, even if something passes the three tests on a nominal level, more research would be required to establish general applicability.  If the concept under discussion emerges in writings by a lone writer and is not picked up more generally in a given society I wouldn't count it, for instance.

    This isn't to say that something should be dismissed just because it is not natural, as long as it is not being used as a starting point to derive general rules from, in which case I find it impossible to accept that something that is the product of a particular culture is in fact general.  Our ancestors weren't stupid, if something was part of the general human condition they were perfectly capable of comprehending it.  What modern man has a step up on is that we can create all kinds of wonderful things that have absolutely nothing natural about them that do amazing things for mankind.  It is important not to fool ourselves into thinking these things are natural, or essential.  They are fragile things built upon extremely complex foundations and thus subject to disruption and ruin.  They only persist because of the systems we have created, if we try to break things down to their essentials there is no reason to believe that our complex social organization would survive, very few of our cultural and social ideas have a sufficient natural basis that I believe they could survive in isolation from other ideas less congenial to the social theorist trying to start from first principles.

    Which is why I believe it is better to just accept social theory and history as being entirely contingent and building from what we have rather than trying to imagine some state stripped of all that has been built up.  We're better off not going back to essentials.

    * Ibn Khaldun is largely criticizing that those who write or speak of history don't try to make any more general theory to understand the past.  I think we have the opposite problem, people try to make too much general theory without trying to understand the past which is just as bad.  There is a tendency to accept the culturally specific as being instead general to the human condition.  But cultures and ideas change and what is natural to one generation is an alien species to another.

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    Some Preliminaries: On Natural Right

    Most ideologies begin with some notion of natural right.  This can be Locke's defense of property, the religious justification for the political order of Christendom, Marx's concept of the right to the product of one's labor (generally expressed through the negative of this, alienation from one's labor), or the Thomas Jefferson's life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    This is perhaps the most cynical part of my project.  I don't believe in natural right.  I believe all rights are artificial.  This makes them no less important, I personally believe it makes them more rather than less special and important, rights can be justified because they ultimately have resonance with a broad range of individuals and have real positive impacts on societies that adopt them.

    I realize for many people this takes away much of the moral justification for rights.  Personally, I feel the opposite about it.  Nothing makes me more certain that there is a good end for humanity than that we can create concepts of such power with such universal resonance that benefit mankind so much with no ultimate rational or traditional basis for them (the right to life I feel slightly different about, there does seem to be a natural compulsion against murder that may be an individual basis for a more general societal right to life, this is a rather more complicated topic and in any case, the right to life alone is far too little to form a society or ideology around).

    In any case, I will be starting by looking at problems and seeking to derive an appropriate ideology rather than using a notion of natural right as a starting point, mostly due to this belief.  I think this is just as good as a starting point, Locke's defense of property can be seen as a protest against the personal discretion that ruled property relations in favor of the monarch and law, Marx can be seen as a protest against industrial capital, and Thomas Jefferson as a protest against the divine right in favor of a basis for society in rationality.

    I should also confess that I've never quite wrapped my mind around why something natural is better than something artificial, not just in politics but everywhere else.  This may be the root of my lack of understanding why the idea of rights being natural is important to some people, I don't get why natural is important anywhere.

    Some Preliminaries: Are There Objective Criteria to Judge Societies By?

    There is exactly one objective criteria that societies can be judged by in any frame of reference, ancient or modern.  That is survival.  After all you have to be in the game to play it.

    This isn't to say that other criteria aren't important as well but ultimately these are subjective and limited in their ability to compare across broad sweeps of human history.  It's not really fair to talk about Qin dynasty China in terms of its ability to secure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness or the consent of the governed.  They weren't even thinking of politics in terms of the individual in this era (though it's not 100% clear to me that the writers of the declaration were thinking entirely in individual terms either, too many signs of corporatism).  Their reality was simply too much different to be judged in our terms.

    Of course, judging societies by their ability to survive should mean more than just counting how many years they were around.  I see three basic qualities, the ability to project power, the ability to maintain stability, and the ability to spur internal development.  How these three are framed and recommendations to enhance these qualities very highly across eras, though modern conception certainly seem more effective then older ones.

    The reason I regard survival as essential is that other conceptions have what I see as a fatal flaw.  That flaw is that while looking at a society at any given time may make economic development, human happiness, or simply responding to people's preferences seem important, in the longer term if society makes the wrong choices reality will come along and mug it, no matter how happy the people are or how well it responds to people's desires.  Reality is a harsh mistress, the wrong choices will leave society broken and in pieces, even if every step along the way conformed with the current thinking on how a society should work.  The success of a society can be judged by its ability to recognize, and effectively confront, those problems that threaten its long term survival.  A society unable to do this is ultimately a failure.  While at the time it may be obvious, to history there are right and wrong choices and we will be judged against those, not against how satisfied we are with choices in the moment.

    Of course, less than effective societies can survive for a rather long period of time by a conjunction of social forces, such as location and being non-threatening.  Since this survival is not due to a society's conscious choices but the choices of others it is more of an exception that proves the rule than something to take guidance by.  In any case, this isn't an option for a state of the US's size and ambition so isn't really an option for us.  We've already developed enough of a reputation that even if we set aside our ambition I highly doubt we'd be left alone.

    Some Preliminaries: Directionality of History

    Before I get into analyzing the specifics of what I think the longer term issues are [I shall delve] into a necessary preliminary [to make] my overall worldview of history and society explicit.

    The first of these is that I view history as progressing, though not necessarily to an end point.  This is not dissimilar to Kant's notion of crooked wood, things get generally better in the long run but not every given change is for the better, sometimes we regress.

    That said, I don't necessarily believe that every aspect of life is necessarily getting better at the same time, sometimes a regression can be necessary for progress in other areas.  For instance, I think many aspects of modern life are probably alienating people from the kind of sense of community that people in past eras enjoyed, and this is an inevitable consequence of the limits of modern technology and social organization.  However, given longer lifespans and that now the vast majority of children reach adulthood I don't see how you can really make an argument that things have gotten worse.  After all, you have to have life to render judgment, a society that lets more people live is better within reasonable limits (maximizing population to the point where no one has more than the bare minimum to live would be an example of an unreasonable stretch).

    So you can call it what you will, divine will, a learning process, historical forces, conscious human choice, social evolution, or whatever else makes sense in your worldview, but I think it is hard to deny that there is some kind of progress to history, it's not simply relative nor is it a matter of conforming to known rules.  We're progressing towards an unknown future that will be better than today, though we have to be careful not to fool ourselves into taking a step backwards or deceiving ourselves into thinking we know exactly where we're supposed to go.  If we knew that, someone would have got there already.

    [Edits made for clarity.  Credit to g cross for catching it.]

    Sunday, October 10, 2010

    A Fictional History from the Future

    [For an explanation of this posts purpose see this post and this second post explaining the observer.]

    The 21st century opened with one of the most atrocious terrorist attacks of all time, which occurred on September 11, 2001. This was an attack motivated and conducted by a reactionary Islamist ideology and organization called al Qaeda. This organization was a radically decentralized network wholly independent of state control, its emergence was the first sign that the monopoly of the state on international politics had decisively ended. While it would be many years before the more general proliferation of networks of comparable scope and influence, the general outline of the future success of this form of social organization could be seen in this first, evil pioneer. The attack itself, which still remains among the largest and most destructive terrorist attacks of all time, caused relatively little physical damage, at least when compared to the devastation elicited by the response to it. However, the social and cultural scars ran much deeper than the physical damage. Despite the essentially social and cultural nature of the attack and the motivation behind it the US government acted in a state-centric matter. Rather than seeking to engage and defeat its opponent in the social and ideological sphere in which al Qaeda existed, operated and acted, the US instead conducted invasions of two states in an attempt to destroy al Qaeda's material base of support. This approach would prove ultimately futile, though it did succeed in shifting the focus of what was then called the “war on terror” into Asia, and it would be some time before the US, or other states, would realize their inability to counter this form of threat and develop institutions capable of effectively countering them.

    The Future Perspective

    The following account is a view of the contemporary era through a fictionalized observer. Its purpose is to attempt to perceive current political action in terms of its long term consequences rather than in terms of immediate effects. The piece is meant to be a quick introduction to the early 21st century that would be similar to a brief introduction that you could find today on a history website, wikipedia, or perhaps high school history textbook. At times the language will be a little over technical, my fictional observer would have the use of terminology to reflect a new fictional reality that would be readily accessible to readers, terminology that would only confuse things more if I invented it myself.

    The observer is imagined as a future American from what I consider a plausible outcome of current struggles. The setting isn't meant as a prediction, I am choosing extrapolations from trends I think will play a large role in how our society develops but I can make no claims about what likely outcomes of these trends will be, this is simply a selection of what I regard as many possible contingent outcomes. Some aspects of the society this observer lives in I consider quite likely, the breakdown of the strong image of state vs. private that dominates today I consider inevitable for instance. Other outcomes I throw in to reflect the unpredictable nature of historical development, I don't consider a Great Moral Revival that redefines the relation of religion, morality, society and social norms likely for instance; though given the crisis of religious and moral identity today I consider this not impossible. 

    This is an America that has become one of the big four global powers but not the dominant one of those four. The writer sees this relative decline as highly regrettable and can't help a few criticisms of us due to this decline. Non-state actors play a more significant role in this world, the observer considers their rise as one of the more significant developments whose importance was not fully recognized today. Our two primary contested political identities, capitalism vs. communism and democracy vs. authoritarianism, are considered somewhat quaint by this observer, similar to how we view religious identity and politics today (when was the last time anyone talked about Christendom as a major political division but people were fighting and dying over this mere decades before democracy vs. authoritarianism, and the loosely linked concept of nationalism, swept these ideas away). Still important today but not defining in anything other than some marginal perspectives. There has also been a general moral revival where religion has more fully engaged with modern philosophy and ethics to take a more explicitly ecumenical turn and explicitly rejected much of the sectarian tendencies of today. This has lead to religion having a much more deep and pervasive influence than it does today with the social breakdown of our day being ascribed to our narrower outlook and inability to engage our beliefs with broader social change. This is a religion more of flexibility, interpretation and worldview than it is one of eternal prescribed rules.

    Friday, October 8, 2010

    Governor Christie Might Be Smarter than I Thought

    Apparently Governor Christie has decided to review the tunnel project.  A combination of outrage by public officials and that he has become the days most excoriated man in the blogosphere (or at least by Paul Krugman, who is particularly good at excoriating people) may have something to do with this, not necessarily in even proportions.  I'm giving him a 40% chance of getting the tunnel without a dime having to show up in the official New Jersey budget.

    [Hat Tip: Free Exchange for the 40% rule(delay in editing this due to me not remembering where I first saw it)]

    Thursday, October 7, 2010

    Voter Disgust, Political Alienation, and My Crazy Approach To My Part In Doing Something About It

    Matt Bai has an interesting article in the NY Times today about the disgust voters feel towards politicians.  The emphasis is that it's not about policy, it's about a feeling of a deeper societal ailment.  As for politicians:

    These voters did not hate politicians. They simply saw both parties, along with the news media and big business, as symptoms of the larger societal ailment. And this underlying perception, that politicians in Washington conduct themselves just as childishly and with the same lack of accountability as the students throwing chicken casserole in the lunchroom, may well be the principal emotion behind the electorate’s propensity to vote out whoever holds power.

    This seems to be an accurate description of how voters feel and not a bad explanation of why the electorate seems to be voting little on issues but high on the idea of throwing the bums out.  As disgust with both parties rises there are more independents and people feel increasingly alienated from the two political parties.

    The problem is, this attitude doesn't lead to a solution.  There's little reason to think politicians are either better or worse than they've been before.  This is a constant, not something that has changed.  There's also little reason to believe that people have changed in a way that would make society ungovernable or lead to the breakdown of civil society.  So electing politicians who promise to change the government or clean out the corruption won't get us anywhere, these aspects aren't really different from the past, it's something else.

    I think that something else is the lack of a real political vision, and perhaps even more deeply a need for an updated view of ethics and morality, for the modern world.  Neither of our political parties seems to have any real vision for the future.  The Democrats just seem confused, they have a lot of technical answers to current problems and mutter some vague base pleasing phrases about the rich and the power of corporations but I can't really tell where they see the country in thirty years.  The Republicans seem stuck in the 1980s and have a political strategy that resembles Weekend at Bernies, rather than facing the what they need to do today they're trying to justify their policies by shouting SOCIALISM! loud enough to distract people from the fact that the Soviet Union is in fact dead and rotted.

    So what to do about this?  Both parties ultimately seem stuck in the last century, the Democrats just because they don't really know where to go now and seem content tinkering with the system and the Republicans because they enjoyed the party so much that they're not willing to admit the reason for it is gone.  Part of the problem is that the political philosophy that touches the broad part of the electorate seems woefully out of date and says little about modern problems.  The struggles of democracy vs fascism or capitalism vs communism just don't really seem to reflect our problems.  Plenty of people try to use these old frames but it seems forced.

    There is of course some wonderful work being done in academia on political philosophies and approaches.  But I don't see a mass political movement arising out of social constructivism or neo-liberal institutionalism, these just aren't those kinds of philosophies.  Social democracy seems to work pretty well but even that is fairly technical in tone and doesn't resonate well with an American audience anyway.

    The only way forward is to develop a real candidate for a mass political movement.  It's been done before, the Conservative movement got started this way relatively recently.  You have to go back a bit further for liberalism but that has similar characteristics.

    I'm going to take a shot at getting this ball rolling, just for fun.  My goal will be to take a bird's eye view of the problems facing the world today and ground this into some kind of coherent narrative.  My approach will be eccentric, I'm doing this because I enjoy this kind of thing, not because I expect it to go anywhere, as well as because I believe it's just not right to complain about something when you're not willing to take a stab at fixing it.

    I'm sure there's plenty of other examples of people who've tried to do this.  Popular political books are a weak point of mine, aside from the news I avoid buying anything I think will be dated in 10 years.  I also have to admit theory isn't my strong suit, I prefer to ground myself in more practical questions and history.  These two things may turn out to be advantages to thinking of something original, I'm not discouraged by all the great work I'm ignoring and I'm not too tightly bound in existing theoretical perspectives, only aware of the basic outlines and a by no means complete smattering of the great books on the subject.

    My first step in tackling this myself will be the most eccentric, but something I've done before.  Something that has always struck me is that looking back through history it's all about broad social forces, the rise of the middle class, desires for westward expansion; things like that.  It's not at all like the day to day politics focused on personality and narrow policies.  To try to get at some of that broader, more systemic thought I'll be attempting to write a fictionalized account of a future history of the early 21st century.  The goal is to withdraw myself from the accepted wisdom of today by writing from an artificial perspective.  The point is so that I can try to look at what is happening that is part of the broad sweep of history and what are the isolated footnotes that only a specialist would know about in 50 years.

    Once this eccentric part is completed I'll start trying to tackle broad issue areas.  The goal will be to identify what are the big problems facing us and what are pathways out.  I won't be trying to give detailed policies or a data rich analysis, this is about a general take and trying to figure out what the longer term options are rather than detailing specific steps.

    From these individual problems I'll be taking a look at I'll be trying to formulate a view that can tie them all together.  What should a modern society look like?  How should we be reacting to global re-balancing? What is causing modern social breakdown, and what can be done?

    At the end of this, you'll have my answers on how to approach these questions.  I can't say that I'm even attempting to tackle these things in a systematic way to claim that I'll be right about them.  But at the end I should have a loosely articulated and semi-coherent view on how to approach these things.

    I know I'm biting off more than I can chew, and possibly chasing some readers away.  This won't take over the blog, it will just be a piece here and there as I complete it.  Anyway, wish me luck.

    Wednesday, October 6, 2010

    Is Some Religious Belief in the US Nationalism in Disguise?

    [Edit:  I hated the original title and meant to edit it after posting when something better occurred to me, still not thrilled with it but it's more on message.]

    Ross Douthat has an intriguing blog post exploring some of the findings from the widely talked about Pew Forum findings on the religious knowledge of Americans.  It's worth reading, it discusses how religious faith can be lived rather than being academic knowledge but that some religious teachings are essential, basic knowledge.

    What I was left wondering at the end though, was what this has to say about the exceptionally high level or religious identification in the US relative to Europe?  Perhaps at the root of this, religious identification serves a different cultural purpose here than it does in other western nations.  What I specifically have in mind is that in a country that officially eschews a cultural nationalism in favor of a more universal and accessible civic nationalism religious identification may be fulfilling the same emotional and social identification needs that more traditional nationalism does elsewhere.  If this is a correct frame, a certain portion of those that self-identify as religious could more accurately be described as traditional nationalists alienated in a society that condemns nativism and insists on universal, rather than particular, values.  This group would hold little real attachment to religious beliefs and doctrine and would instead have a religious belief system that is more akin to nationalism found in other western nations than it is to either traditional American nationalism, the religious belief system of more traditionally religious Americans, or the religious belief systems of other western nations.

    I won't pretend to have an answer to this, it's just a question this debate has raised in my mind.

    Tuesday, October 5, 2010

    Influence Peddling and What's Different about Government Today

    Just finished reading Bob Herbert's most recent column on John Boehner.  His major criticism is over Boehner's influence peddling and the influence of money on his politics, in particular this line:

    The amount of democracy-destroying money that manages to make its way into the sleazy environs of what is now known as Boehner Land has increased to a staggering degree.

    I'm not sure this is an example of "democracy-destroying money."  If my memory serves me correctly men that would be rather more popular with the Bob Herbert's of the world were also well known for their influence peddling, Lyndon Johnson comes to mind as having a reputation for this.  The form of this influence peddling was likely different, decades separate them, but I doubt the dynamics of influence peddling have changed that much.

    This isn't to say that I have no problems with money and politics.  But as much as it angers voters this back room (or in this case front foyer) influence peddling hasn't ever really been in any way "democracy-destroying," its simply the slightly sordid way that things actually get done.  The proper check on this is that if it begins to thwart the public will and to harm the country angry voters can throw the bums out.

    Money becomes "democracy-destroying" when it disrupts the process of the public learning of how their officials are acting to provide rents to the politically connected and then throwing the bums out.  Its not the back room trading of money and influence that is "democracy-destroying" but the ability of money and influence to shape public opinion and prevent less wealthy or connected voices from being heard that is potentially "democracy-destroying."