Let’s start with a conundrum…
Over the two plus years this blog has been active, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the actions taken or avoided by (mostly) our national officials, elected and appointed. It’s been like watching a slow-motion train wreck, most of the time. I think I know why.
The premises underpinning much of what informs our expectations of our elected are flawed. In order for government of, by and for the people to be effective, both of the following two premises must be true.
- Those elected or appointed to make decisions in our behalf must be capable of making good decisions and
- They are disposed to do so, philosophically–in the best interests of our nation.
There is nothing unreasonable with either premise, purely on the merits. It has worked though imperfectly for over 200 years. Why then are the outcomes lately so at odds with our expectations? The problem lies in the “purely on their merits,” thing. Our founders recognized humans were fallible and well, corruptible.
They also understood corruption in a broader sense. While corruption might be an uncomplicated matter of financial gain, they also recognized some simply love power and/or the white-hot spotlight accompanying power and notoriety. I have some specific recent examples in mind as I suspect most of my readers do, as well. So let’s take a closer look at the two premises above with an eye to a doing a little civic diagnostics.
The Calculus of Washington Decision-making
Let’s start with the decision-makers themselves. Consider the hackneyed question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” While not everyone wants to be (rich that is), let’s acknowledge most don’t mind having wealth if it comes packaged with the thing(s) that matter most to them. With that, let’s see where the answer to the question above takes us.
- The median net worth of American households collectively is a little over $70K, according to a study in CNN money
- By comparison, the freshmen Representatives entering Congress after the 2012 elections had a median net worth of over $ 1 million dollars according to the same source
While it’s true some Representatives’ wealth is an accident of birth or marriage, it is also true some have earned it (or added to what they had) by merit. So obviously, they’re doing something right. Those born to it, they should at least have excellent educations. And all won a campaign which suggests they can interpret opinion polls and appeal to campaign donors. It’s probably fair to suggest the majority, then, should have sufficient reasoning skills to make sound decisions—given a balanced presentation of facts.
The Anatomy of Good Decisions
Irrespective of the field of knowledge in question, good decision-making relies on a process of evaluating facts and drawing reasoned inferences from them to arrive at sound decisions. In decision-making for a pluralistic democracy, this process will always require as a minimum the elements listed below:
1. Accurate Information. This is nothing more or less than collecting and contextualizing the facts available and bearing on a specific question under consideration.
2. Sound Reasoning. This is as simple (and as tricky) as evaluating candidate solutions to problems or refining solutions already in legislation utilizing logic and (as importantly) avoiding common logical errors. Examples include:
- specious generalizations
- flawed arguments of causation
- false mutual exclusives
- drawing inferences from descriptive statistics
- cherry-picking convenient facts while ignoring inconvenient ones
3. Good Will. A hidden assumption in democracy relates to the motivation of those who run for and are elected to political office. We assume candidates’ motives for seeking office are if not solely about honest service, they are at least not in direct conflict with it.
In the second decade of the 21st Century, accurate information is readily available. This is most especially true for an elected Representative in Congress. Whether the Representative selects accurate (or inaccurate) information to aid in their decision process or information supporting our cherished belief systems are another matter.
This brings us to the second element of sound decision-making, namely sound reasoning. Let’s take a look at just two recent examples of the logical flaws mentioned above.
Government Shutdown/Default Debacle. It’s an article of faith with many self-appointed budget hawks that Barack Obama is responsible for runaway debt threatening the long-term future of the American economy. Some attribute it to the ACA while others conclude it was the “bail out.”
- The facts, however, don’t support their assertions. By 2019, more than half of our debt will be attributable to tax cuts and war.(Thanks to the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities with special thanks to Ezra Klein for digging this chart up).
- Even more difficult to swallow was the recent notion that shutting down the government over the Affordable Healthcare Act or defaulting on our national debt represents a viable way of dealing with the problem. If you really feel a desperate need to validate just how flawed the reasoning of Senator Cruz or Representative Michele Bachmann really is, try declaring bankruptcy personally & see how that works out for you. Please do feel free to experiment personally & don’t forget to swing by and let me & my readers know how that worked out for you.
The Five + One Deal with Iran on Nukes. It didn’t take five minutes for the usual suspects to start whining about President Obama’s diplomatic efforts to deal with Iran. Numerous haters and self-styled security hawks pointed out the obvious, namely the Iranians might welch on the deal. As anyone who has negotiated anything knows, negotiation comes with risks. Among the obvious are:
- Every attempt at peacemaking comes with the risk the other party may not negotiate in good faith. Where would we be if President Reagan assumed negotiations with the former Soviet Union would inevitably lead to them obtaining an undesirable advantage? Or President Nixon had assumed negotiations with China had an inevitably unfavorable outcome?
- While Iran may (worst case) continue to seek a nuclear weapon and perhaps eventually acquire them, it’s not a foregone conclusion they would use them. In fact, history suggests otherwise. It’s worth noting the only user of nuclear weapons in all of recorded history is the United States…food for thought.
So let’s review. We’ve already established that most of our elected representatives should be able to reason, given two generally accepted litmus tests of intelligence & success (wealth and education). But as we have seen with regard to logic, the statements of the positions of these hypothetically logical men and women appear to be flawed.
West of Tomorrow & Uncomfortable Truths
This leads us to question whether the problem is reasoning ability or good will. As I stated earlier, there is an assumption hiding in plain sight with any representative democracy. The assumption is that our representatives sought public service with the best interests of Americans in mind; or at least those of their constituents. It’s a reasonable expectation. But it assuming this to be true of all of them…or that it remains true throughout their tenure is not realistic.
It’s worth remembering that:
- Some of our elected representatives are less about their constituents than their financial contributors who are very diligent about protecting their investment. (And some very much see their contribution as an investment).
- Others who originally entered the political arena with the intentions of which they could justifiably be proud have acquired less lofty goals by accident or by intent.
- The times change and so do our needs. As citizens responsible for the behavior of our stewards, we must hold them accountable.
The uncomfortable truth for Congress is their approval rating has sunk to an all-time low of 9%, based on a Nov 13, 2013 Gallup Poll. An equally uncomfortable truth for we the citizens of those representatives is we have gotten the representatives we deserve. If we’re not happy with how/what they are doing, it is time for us to fix the problem we’ve helped create. Are districts gerrymandered in ways distorting the democratic process? Yes. Who let this happen? We did. It is up to us to usher in the days West of Tomorrow. In part two of this post, I will offer some ways we can help do just that.