How To Shrink Government—For Real

When I first started working in the advertising business in New York City many years ago, one of my senior colleagues told me the following joke—both to make me laugh and provide me with a little insight into reality….

 Starting his first day at a new job, a man ran into his predecessor cleaning out his desk, who gestured to the top right hand drawer.

 “I hear you’re taking over from me.  This is a pretty demanding position, so there’s a little tradition we keep up here.  I’ve put three sealed and numbered envelopes in this drawer.  When you hit your first crisis with our boss, open envelope number one.  When the second crisis strikes, open number two.  When you and our boss have your third falling out, open the third envelope.”  

 Smiling at the seeming absurdity of the three envelopes, the man said goodbye to his predecessor and started his new job.

 However, one terrible morning several months later, after his boss had chewed him out for not meeting his performance goals, the man went back to his desk and—his hands shaking—opened the first envelope and read the note: “Blame your predecessor.”  After lunch he went in and explained to his boss what a mess his department was in when he took over the position. It worked.  Mollified by the explanation, his boss sent him back to his desk without further comment.

 A couple of months later his boss was on the rampage again, demanding to know when improved results were forthcoming.  After anxiously reaching into his desk, the man pulled out the second envelope and read the advice: “Announce a reorganization.”  Racing into his boss’s office, the man explained that he was changing around the responsibilities of the people in his department in order to increase productivity.  A bit disbelieving but still satisfied by this plan, his boss sent the man on his way.

 Unfortunately, as yet more months passed, no improvements were apparent.  Frothing with rage, the boss told his underling to be in his office the next morning with a new strategy to finally turn around his department.  Remembering how the first two envelopes had saved him, the man raced back his desk and frantically tore open the third envelope.  

 Inside he found a note that read as follows: “Prepare three envelopes….”

 A good deal of private sector work tracks right along with the three envelopes.  Managers and supervisors have, from time immemorial, followed exactly this arc to keep those above them happy—at least for a while.  Government bureaucracies—and the bureaucrats and elected officials that run them—are likewise prone to either blame their predecessors or announce a reorganization when problems become too obvious to ignore.

 However, those who survive in government jobs become experts at one particular “skill” above all others: keeping their heads down and asking no questions.  Consequently, we employ millions of men and women who will—from the day they start work until the day they retire—plod placidly along while paying little heed to either the utility of their work or its societal outcomes.  The consequence is an ever growing chasm between the costs of government and the actual benefits that are provided to our nation.  

 If you’ve ever wondered why we spend our lives paying taxes for schools that don’t educate, roads filled with potholes, and various departments and agencies that seem to have no discernible or logical function, you are asking the right questions—but you are wrong in believing improvements are possible.  Absent the private sector accountability provided by the need to both produce measurable results and turn a profit, it will always be the predisposition of government to cost more and provide less over time.  Although there are many who believe—believe with all their hearts and souls in many cases—that those who want to reduce the size of government are heartless haters who are putting our lives and the future of our nation at risk, the catastrophic rise of both daily government expense and government indebtedness compels those with the least smidgen of sanity to question our current direction—and seek change.

 Obviously, we need government, and there are basic responsibilities that government is best suited to fulfill.  National defense, local law enforcement, health and safety regulations, and maintenance of the infrastructure and the regulatory framework necessary for interstate and international commerce are clearly the purview of government managed by elected officials.  Protection of our environment is also necessary to help ensure the health and welfare of our citizens.  A free, taxpayer-supported system of primary and secondary education—whether provided by public or charter schools—must certainly be in place to put each generation in a position for future success.

 However, the accountability necessary for well-managed government programs is impeded by the sheer immortality of government agencies and departments—that which is once funded never goes away.  Much like that famous fictional Count from Transylvania, government agencies and departments live forever, sucking the life blood of the citizenry and striking fear into the hearts of all who dare defy them.  Elected and appointed officials, although nominally in control, rarely have the staying power to do much to rein in their inexorable growth.

 Government is, at least in theory, the servant of the people, so the solution might be to let the people decide—directly.  

 Therefore, we should consider allowing the appropriations for every government agency and department—except for a very select few deemed absolutely vital to our nation—to “sunset” every ten years.  In order to continue operations, they would need to be voted back into existence by our citizens—not a handful of legislators who have been purchased through campaign contributions.  During the ten year cycle, appropriations and oversight would be left to elected officials and appointees, but thereafter a plebiscite of the citizenry—local, state, or national, depending on the department or agency or question—would decide whether to allow it to continue to function.  There would, of course, be a brief winding down period if programs were closed so that the enforcement responsibility for regulations promulgated could be smoothly transferred, but this would be manageable—and of limited duration and cost compared to the eternal life and expense prior.

 There will, quite naturally, be those who for a variety of reasons would vociferously oppose such an idea.  The status quo always has its fans—particularly when there is (as is always the case with government) jobs and money involved.  Nonetheless, unless we want to continue to spin on as we are until every last penny is gone from our pockets—and the pockets of our children and grandchildren—we must take affirmative and direct control over the mechanisms of our government.

 If not, we will soon be preparing our own “third envelope” for our nation and its future.  This is an outcome we dare not allow to occur.

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Who Gets To Vote?

The history of American democracy is also a history of our sloppy, exclusionary, and infuriating system of voting. As much as we might want to paint our elections as some sacred system designed to produce that most perfect of all unions, the plain fact of the matter is that winning candidacies boil down to a very simple and cold-hearted equation: Make certain that my supporters vote and those of my opponent don’t. All the rest is political science theory.

Not surprisingly, the methods of winning elections by controlling who votes have run the gamut from the rascally to the outright despicable. Here in my own state of Illinois, the dead have a long and storied history of rising from the grave to cast their ballots. For much of our history women were denied the vote. Long after the passage of the 15th Amendment, African-Americans had to sometimes risk their lives to enter a polling place. Gerrymandered districts have long been used by both major political parties to neutralize the votes of some while amplifying the impact of the votes of others. The limitations of our continued reliance on balky voting machines and volunteer electoral judges perhaps reached an apogee—or nadir—in 2000, when we all had a chance to learn what a “hanging chad” was, and the U.S. Supreme Court abruptly—perhaps too abruptly—ended a Presidential recount in Florida and declared a winner.

Therefore, to blithely celebrate our “free and fair” electoral system requires a least a little willful blindness at times. We cannot discuss improvements if we deny our historic failures.

However, recent discussions about expanding the franchise by permitting felons, sixteen year olds, or even illegal immigrants to vote in some elections veer into territory that goes far beyond simply improving the systems we now have. We are now asked to decide whether felony convictions should be sufficient grounds for revoking a basic right of citizenship, when sufficient maturity to vote responsibly has been attained, or whether unlawful residency should provide voting rights that have historically been restricted to citizens. These are all huge questions that have profound implications for the future of our nation.

The question of whether states should continue to restrict the rights of convicted felons to vote hinges on a very basic question: Do we believe voting to be an irrevocable right or an earned privilege? At least to this point in time we have generally restricted the rights of felons to vote while in prison. The question today is whether voting rights should be automatically restored to felons upon release or there should be additional restrictions until other conditions set by individual state legislatures are satisfied by that ex-convict.

We might also reasonably ask whether the same restrictions should apply to both violent and non-violent offenders, but this often crashes into the question of whether we are giving preferential treatment to white-collar criminals. As regards the right to vote, should we distinguish between the accountant who facilitated a real estate fraud and the purse snatcher who knocked down a little old lady during the commission of the crime? Is the integrity of our voting system more at risk from someone running a marijuana grow house or someone who was stealing cars and stripping them for parts?

Having taught high school, I know my viewpoint regarding allowing sixteen year olds to vote has been affected by my professional experience. Some liberals are, of course, thrilled with this idea in the wake of student protests in favor of more—and more confiscatory—gun control laws because younger people generally skew hard left politically, and this tendency could affect the outcome of many elections. However, although the exuberant idealism of the young can be useful counterpoint to the weary cynicism of older voters beaten down by the eternal gulf between the promises and performances of politicians, bright-eyed ideology unleavened by messy life experience can be problematic.

Anyone who remembers their youthful belief in their own infallibility—which, of course, stood in stark contrast to the blind stupidity of the oblivious adult world—has at least at once grimaced at the utter cluelessness of their younger selves. The French have a lovely aphorism, quoted and re-quoted in various permutations, that ably captures this dichotomy: “If you are not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative at forty, you have no head.” A world run by 16 year olds might by long on energy and short on practicality—or it might resemble The Lord of The Flies. Perhaps there is something to be said for the sagacity that comes with age. In addition, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 years of age in only 1971, so it is likely worth another bit of a wait before we fiddle with the voting age yet again.

The issue of granting some voting rights to undocumented immigrants is a topic of intense discussion in states such as California, Illinois, and New York. Their laws designed to protect the many who reside in those states illegally readily morph into granting this population more and more public aid and benefits of all types—so voting rights seem to some the next natural step. This is also viewed as a way to battle the entrenched “racism” of those who support stricter enforcement by helping to boost the electoral fortunes of those candidates who are friendly to the notion of a world without borders.

However, one would be hard-pressed to find a developed nation where policies that reward lawbreakers are commonplace, and it is reasonable to ask whether open borders and a modern welfare state are a potentially ruinous combination. Although it is certainly true that we are a nation of immigrants, those immigrants almost always arrived under supervision and with documentation—and rules and limitations have been crafted throughout our history to maintain a manageable flow of people into our great nation.

Of course, although our legal immigration policies have historically been quite generous, there is no doubt they have often reflected the prejudices and preconceptions of the people who crafted them. This is sad, and at times it has resulted in injustices that have affected individuals and their families, but we cannot undo the past and now must muddle along from here. Additional domestic and international issues, which are far beyond our ability to predict, will affect our immigration legislation and procedures going forward in ways we cannot imagine, so all we can do is continue to be as welcoming as our economic conditions and security considerations allow. Beyond this, the question of granting some voting rights to those who have entered the U.S. illegally will be a priority for some immigration partisans—but I strongly doubt the vast majority of Americans will endorse this idea because it fails to account for basic common sense.

There was once a time in American history when our polling places were in taverns and saloons—and a vote could be had for the price of a couple of beers. Our election procedures have obviously improved a great deal since, but much improvement is still possible—particularly as regards expanded voting opportunities and convenience.

Moreover, we can continue to improve the security and accuracy of the ballot in a variety of ways, and the increased infiltration of dazzling and powerful technology into every facet of our daily lives may someday mean that we will be saying “Siri, it’s time for me to vote for President.” on a Tuesday in early November. That would certainly increase voter participation—and reduce the opportunities for the chicanery and silliness that have marred too many of our elections in the past. In addition, it would be way, way cool.

Code of Silence

It was not a surprise to hear this, but a comment one of my students recently made in class seemed to neatly sum up our anxious and antagonistic national mood: “I really don’t like to express my opinion about anything because people just attack you for what you think.”

Yep. That pretty much nails it.

I am not one of those who believe that our major news outlets are part of some liberal cabal out to subvert America. Watching the sense of shock suffuse the faces of the pollsters and pundits on Election Night in 2016, it was obvious that the results had them completely gobsmacked. Having spent the previous couple of years in animated discussion with one another, they were convinced that anyone with a lick of intelligence thought just the way they did, and all of the national polls served to provide ironclad proof that we would be toasting President-elect Clinton’s landslide victory when the dawn broke.

One of the reasons more and more “experts” are so confused by the current state of our nation is likely that fewer and fewer Americans have any interest in serious discussions that extend beyond a small circle of close friends or immediate family. My student is absolutely correct that talk too often leads to trouble in our hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive environment. I sometimes feel the same way when I receive flaming ripostes regarding my blog commentaries. Principled disagreement based on values, judgment, knowledge, and experience has been relegated to the scrap heap of representative democracy. Now the focus is on “shutting down” those whose views are different from your own. Given the very high probability that your opinions will be misrepresented, misinterpreted, or mischaracterized, many now consider it a mistake to ever express what they think on a topic or issue of the day.

This problem harms our nation in three distinct—and important—ways.

First and foremost, open and fearless debate regarding the issues facing our nation is the very lifeblood of democracy. The moment that citizens start to shut up in order to avoid being “shut down” by angry partisans on either side, the possibilities for discussion leading to consensus are diminished. We may not always like what those who believe differently have to say, but we cheat ourselves and our nation if we do not listen to the doubters and dissenters who may see a problem or flaw that has been overlooked—or simply ignored—by those who are absolutely, positively certain there can be no legitimate viewpoint other than their own.

Moreover, there can be little doubt—particularly after the 2016 election—that silence produces suspicion. All those Trump voters flying beneath the radar resulted in the never ending—and never proven—narrative of Russian collusion that has poisoned our political discussions ever since. Although it is certainly true that the mainstream media chose to ignore the many signals that Hillary Clinton’s coronation was far from assured, it has also been well-documented that many Trump voters kept quiet in order to avoid the ire of family, friends, and co-workers—as well as the scorn of total strangers. In retrospect, more frank and open dialogue would have benefited everyone by perhaps diminishing the shock of Donald Trump’s victory and avoiding the creation of a thriving industry of conspiracy theorists who cling to a self-comforting and self-defeating saga of election fraud rather than doing the hard work of converting more voters to their causes.

Worst of all, any nation in which a few loud and angry voices are allowed to dominate is fertile ground for extremists of all stripes. The eye-rolling, smirks, and sneers that accompany so many of our debates today empower those who present the angriest denunciations of people whose only crime is to hold to a different belief or set of values. Moderation and accommodation is impossible when your opponents are considered twisted, evil, or deluded. Those who vilify others tend to attract a crowd, but that crowd—who are primed for the attack—readily becomes an angry mob intent on driving diversity of opinion down into the dust.

The fragmentation and fulmination of our political sphere today is frightening. Our innate human differences have now become deep and immutable divides that reduce us all to either friend or foe, which leads to yet more insularity and ignorance that will further erode our already damaged and dysfunctional civic culture. We must do better: More listening and less insulting would be a good place to start.

Sex and The Not-So-Single President

Another in a long line of Presidential sex scandals is upon us. The unsurprising news that many women are willing to sleep with rich and powerful men—and rich and powerful men are willing to let them do so even if one or both parties are married—still somehow manages to shock journalists, who apparently are all themselves paragons of rectitude. Of course, what truly turbocharges today’s Trump scandals is that they both provide a cudgel for the mass media outlets that loathe him and crash headlong into a moment in our cultural history when issues of sexual consent are paramount in the minds of many. The distance from Harvey Weinstein masturbating into a potted plant in front of an actress to President Kennedy giving the actress Angie Dickinson what she later described as “the best 20 seconds of my life” is perhaps not so vast as we would like to believe.

There are two facets to the accusations of impropriety now swirling around President Trump. The first is that he seems to have broken his marriage vows—more than once. The second is that he had his lovers sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for large cash payments that were arranged through third parties, which sets all sorts of alarm bells ringing when the #MeToo movement is now highlighting the many women who have been compelled to remain silent in the past about sexual abuse and assault.

All of this, of course, is taking place against a background of President Trump’s documented boorishness regarding women. The infamous “grab them by the pussy” comments on the Access Hollywood recording and accusations of unwelcome advances elsewhere have been widely reported, but it seems all the extramarital sexual encounters that have so far come to light are entirely consensual.

We do not know—nor do I believe it is our business to know—the details of Donald and Melania Trump’s marriage. Whether they have a private understanding that permits liaisons outside of their marriage or Mr. Trump is simply making the same mistake that so many men make—believing that marriage and dating are entirely compatible—I do not know. Although I understand it is all but impossible for public figures to keep any aspect of their lives private in our tell-all and scandal-driven media landscape, I am old-fashioned enough to believe that the privacy of married life should be respected.

However, now that the much-hyped expectations for actual evidence of Russian collusion during the 2016 election seem increasingly elusive, we can expect that President Trump’s personal and political enemies will be wielding women who claim to have slept with him like an enchanted sword they hope to use to slay the Donald Dragon. Adultery is not an impeachable offense, but it is embarrassing and uncomfortable. Democrats obviously hope keeping it continually and loudly in the news will erode the support that put Mr. Trump into the White House and further stoke the hatreds of his detractors—thus driving them to the ballot box come November. Reality will, of course, take a backseat to hyperbolic and salacious speculation from those with an axe to grind, and the media will be only too glad to spread the seediest and silliest theories far and wide with terrier-like tenacity and great glee.

How much of a teachable moment this will turn out to be remains to be seen. Unlike Thomas Jefferson having sex with a slave whom he owned or Bill Clinton using his charisma and power to hit on a baby-faced intern, President Trump seems to have confined his pre-Presidential affections to adult women who were experienced enough to know just what to expect from a philandering billionaire in search of some recreational nookie. As much as the media would like to paint these women as fair flowers defiled by a cad, porn stars and Playboy Bunnies seem the least likely of candidates for the fainting couch if approached by a man with lust in his heart.

None of this, sadly, is of any consequence to those political opponents who want to drive a duly-elected President from office because he is intent on shrinking the role of government, deporting illegal immigrants, reducing regulations, and cutting taxes—all of which are existential threats to their own policy ambitions. One should never shun a debate concerning the merits and cost-effectiveness of differing approaches to our nation’s problems, but the relentless spew of raw anger flung at those who want to change the direction of our country is unseemly and unhelpful. Government by insult, for which President Trump is equally guilty, makes it extraordinarily difficult to create the coalitions necessary to govern effectively, and relying on partisan judges and lawyers rather than elected legislators to form and implement policies will quickly erode the legitimacy of government as a whole.

If the end game here is to run the same playbook used to disable the Clinton presidency, endless innuendo capped by an obstruction of justice charge born of an understandable presidential reluctance to be forthcoming about every nasty detail of an extramarital affair, the true intent of Special Counsel Mueller and his supporters will be blindingly obvious. If this does turn out to be the case, we can expect our already insane partisan divisions to glow white hot, and Washington and the mass media that counts upon it for sustenance will spend many months (or perhaps years) screeching like monkeys and ignoring the needs of everyone outside of the Beltway Bubble while they jockey for political advantage—and the money sure to follow.

There is so much that we need to do and so many conversations we need to have. It makes no sense at all to waste our energies on this, but I have a sick, sinking feeling that improving our nation will take a backseat to breathless gossip for quite some time to come. It’s really too bad.

Conspiracy Theories Or Reasonable Questions?

As long as humanity has had a toehold on terra firma, we have looked for someone to blame for our woes. Our many problems, which for much of our history were blamed on either the disfavor or caprices of the gods, now are typically blamed on human agents—who are usually part of some cabal out to fool and manipulate us.

Whether we are seeking those behind the JFK assassination, the true story behind 9/11, those UFOs parked in Area 51, or the UN office behind Agenda 21 (perhaps our better conspiracies end with the number 1!), many are convinced that dark forces with malevolent motivations are controlling our world in pursuit of one dastardly agenda or another.

It is, of course, simple human nature to demand a simple explanation for catastrophe. Placating powerful gods at one time consumed those portions of our short and often brutal lives when we were not already engrossed with scratching our meager livings from the earth. Those who claimed to be able to divine and communicate with forces beyond our understanding always were able to win favor, and if some degree of protection from pain or horror might be secured through either ritual or avoiding proscribed behaviors, there would always be a ready audience for such notions. Our compelling interests in avoiding famine, flood, fire, and disease baked a certain degree of easy credulity into humanity’s DNA over the course of many thousands of years, and we must recognize this inheritance is within us all.

Today the thunder of the gods has receded somewhat, and our shamans are typically scientists. Based upon their sage advice, we gulp supplements, avoid bacon and cigarettes, run on treadmills like hamsters, slather on sunscreen, and assiduously attempt to forestall the inevitable deaths of both ourselves and those whom we love by seeking out the secrets to our ever elusive immortality. These behaviors are, by and large, fairly benign and typically work to our benefit. When, for example, is the last time you met someone sporting a large and unsightly goiter—and do most of us even know what this is anymore?

However, the flip side of our credulous belief in the wonders of science as an agent for individual improvement is our bizarre belief in the perfectibility of humanity itself. Hence our willingness to embrace ideas based on the crudest eugenic theories and our obsession with elevating ourselves—while degrading others—based upon what are ultimately the most minute variations in our genes. The hatreds and warfare that have soaked our species in blood now more typically manifest themselves in cartoonish characterizations that are more laughable than dangerous—although ethnic and racial slaughters still pop up around the world with depressing regularity. We obviously still have quite a way to go before we entirely stamp out stupidity.

Recognizing our twin desires to both avoid disaster—and to know who to blame when it befalls us—is necessary if we are to fully understand many of the political and social problems besetting our nation and our world. As our global affairs have become more complex and interdependent, the opportunities for exploitation have multiplied exponentially, and government and multinational corporations—often working hand in glove—have become the golden idols at the center of our lives. Far more powerful, intrusive, and frightening than the supposedly omnipotent gods of old, the power of government and industry to grant stupendous wealth, poison our bodies and minds, destroy our planet, provide uncounted comforts and distractions, take away our property and livelihoods, either greatly extend or savagely shorten our lives, and ultimately control every facet of our existences is unprecedented in human history. Zeus and Apollo were mere amateurs compared to Google and Goldman Sachs.

It should not be much of a surprise that our fear and wonder drives us to anxiously search for patterns and clues to help avoid the wrath of these new and implacable gods—and seek the reasons why they insist on punishing so many of us. Some call them conspiracy theories. More times than we realize, they may be remarkably reasonable questions about our remarkably unreasonable world.

Our grim awareness of the naked and shameless lust for wealth and power that drives so many who now control our lives makes the construction of the conspiracy theories/querulous narratives that animate our discussions all the easier. Understanding the extremist ideologies that undergirded so much of the Cold War, it is easier to imagine whispered instructions from a secretive group ordering the murder of a President. Knowing of the desire of multi-national corporations and their government cronies to secure control of Mideast oil supplies, one need not work too hard to see a stupendous plot to fake a terrorist attack against America in order to justify endless war. Having been kept in the dark about so many secret government military projects, little green men in flying saucers becomes a plausible explanation for so many of those bright lights in the night sky. Observing the never ending violence and drug traffic in our inner cities involving African-Americans, it is little wonder that so many are certain this is being facilitated by the government as part of a genocidal war of extermination.

Given the craven and corrupt behavior that is now so common among government officials and business executives, are we paranoid to believe that our needs come far behind the interests of those in power who are chasing riches and influence? One could, of course, argue that dishonesty and avarice have defined the leaders of every age—why else, after all, would one chase high office in government or business? However, we perhaps have a confluence of circumstances today that heightens the stench that often emanates from the halls of power.

The Information Age has been a boon to the average American citizen—and a bane to those in power. Although political scientists often trace our loss of faith in our leadership back to the twin national traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate, I suspect the crux of the problem is the more adversarial style of journalism these scandals helped to create and the rise of alternative news sources—first in print and later on through the worldwide web. Just as putting a brighter lightbulb in a room causes one to suddenly notice the stained carpet and peeling paint, so has the variety and visibility of news and opinion targeted to—and now increasingly produced by—the masses led to an enormous range of information that speaks to the fears and concerns of virtually everyone.

Although muckrakers and iconoclasts like Ida Tarbell and I. F. Stone played influential roles in shaping opinion earlier in the 20th century, the 24/7 news and information cycle—and the many to whom cheap and powerful technology has now given an unsanctioned and unrestrained voice—has made it virtually impossible for the crooked and corrupt to fly beneath the radar undetected. This visibility produces a higher degree of accountability, but it also calls the motives and methods of business and government—today’s omnipotent yet mysterious gods—into question on a daily basis.

If this scrutiny produces more “conspiracy theories”, so be it. The rich and the powerful are perfectly able to defend themselves if the suspicions of impropriety are unwarranted. If we are compelled to listen to outlandish notions on occasion—only to have them later debunked—I do not find this too high a price to pay for the ongoing oversight that is now possible. If those in charge want our trust, perhaps they had best conduct themselves in a manner that is above suspicion. If not, we should be free to arrive at our own judgments concerning their veracity and good intentions.