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What’s wrong with young people everybody now

I’ve been thinking about the failures of government recently (1, 2), and it turns out (h/t dakinikat) I’m in good company. Sachs points out that “Not only are Americans deeply divided on what to do about [everything], but government is also failing to execute settled policies effectively. Management systems linking government, business and civil society need urgent repair.”

He goes on to list examples. Failure to prevent 9/11, to prevent the human toll post-Katrina, to prevent or stop corruption in Iraq, in the US’ own military, the financial crisis, the dilapidated “health” care system, and the literally dilapidated infrastructure.

However, despite a clear view of the scope and details of the problem, he doesn’t make the obvious connections about its source. He identifies the factors as insufficiently regulated privatization, collapse of planning functions, underfunding, and the inability of separate agencies to fit their priorities into intelligent overall planning. These factors are all real and they’re all huge problems, but they don’t spring into being on their own.

The technical experts who electrified the rural US, ramped up a vast industrial juggernaut to help win the Second World War, built the interstate road system, got to the Moon, and invented Medicare did not belong to some strange species whose methods are inconceivable to us. They were, by and large (we’re talking about whole populations, so by and large is what matters) the same people as the ones now incapable of running a hamster in a cage without a kickback scheme to pay for its kibble.

So what is different?

Democracy is one large experiment in accountability, but nobody actually likes being accountable. Over time the people who can will try to get out from under it. Time has gone by, and accountability has been eroded to the point where scamming The System is not a sign of disgrace but of smarts. The legal penalties may be the same or even worse, but the real preventive force, the social penalties have evaporated. There is functionally no accountability. Now the only requirement is not to get caught.

Since, by and large, people do just what is required of them and not much more, the result is that scamming the system is now the norm, not the exception, and everything is falling apart accordingly.

The problem is that the powerful are less and less answerable to anyone. The problems Sachs lists in government, industry, finance, the military, everywhere, can be traced back to an escape from oversight and retribution. Incumbents who do a dreadful job are reelected. Bankers who crash the economy get bonuses. Generals who lie about troop requirements are promoted. News organizations that broadcast nonsense retain advertisers.

Sachs’ solutions to the problems are that changes are needed “not only to policy but also to basic public management systems.”

I don’t think so. People haven’t somehow lost the ability to manage or to plan. We have the same brains and hearts as fifty years ago. The problem is the lack of accountability. You can work on management and planning till you’re blue in the face, but if you have no hold over the people implementing the ideas, you can never make them do their jobs.

The solution is to take away power from the those who’ve grabbed too much of it. We don’t need a reorg. Or not just a reorg. We need to return to accountability. And not in some braindead, No Child Left Untested, cheap, easy, and ineffective way. Politicians who don’t represent their constituents need to lose elections. The media has to fulfill its role in creating that crucial component of democracy: an informed electorate. Corporations need to be responsible for their actions.

What’s more, none of that has to be pie in the sky. Ways of starting down that path aren’t hard to see. For instance:

  • Complete and exclusive public financing of political campaigns.
  • An overhaul of redistricting so that it’s on the basis of topography and population, and ceases to be a way for politicians to select their voters, instead of the other way around.
  • Significant non-profit, taxpayer-supported news.
  • A return to something like the Fairness Doctrine. It was far from perfect, but it was a damn sight better than an echo chamber of nonsense drowning out all other voices.
  • Ending the legal fiction of corporate personhood. Only flesh-and-blood people can be put in jail, and real people who sign off on a corporation’s decisions must be held responsible for them.

These are all legal matters. They don’t require any change in human nature or better behavior on anyone’s part. They require nothing more than a change in the laws.

I can hear you saying, “Yeah. Right. Good luck with that.”

And I can also tell you why you’re saying it. Because these things really would alter the balance of power, unlike an improved planning commission. You know and I know that powerful people will fight to the death against all of them because they’re no stupider than we are. They know that those seemingly small boring laws are the foundation of their might.

So, yes, getting any of those simple things actually done may well be impossible. But that doesn’t change the truth of where the real solution lies. If you’re trying to solve a problem, there’s no point looking for a solution in the wrong place. You will never find it there, no matter how much easier it might look. An understanding of the real solution has one advantage. It makes it simpler to see which courses of action are a waste of time.

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37 Responses

  1. There are two parties in Washington, the Incumbents and the Wannabes.
    Our Senators and Representatives have more in common with each other and the hand that feeds them than with their constituents.
    But then here in the Big PX, in any group of people the topic of discussion is the state of their favorite sports team or celebrity scandal. Politics doesn’t generate the same passion as elsewhere.
    How many can name their Senator or representative?
    How many of those same politicians like it that way?

  2. Public financing for elections would definitely be a very good start. Remove the money that politicians receive from corporations, and they will be free to look out for the people instead of protecting their campaign donors. Enforcing laws would also be a giant leap forward. It is currently fraud if a banker lends more than he can safely cover. We haven’t seen any evidence that this is being implemented. Also, returning politicians to Washington who do not serve the good of the people should be a thing of the past.

    • It’s my understanding that some of the bank mergers the Fed approved violated anti-trust laws too.
      Is there such a thing as unenlightened self-interest?
      Like the azzclowns in California fixing the systems so it takes a 2/3 majority to pass a funding measure.
      They save in the short term but when a wild fire gets out of control because the gutted the first responders and forest management departments and lose their homes, then what?

      • They don’t respect the law. Passing that crap around throughout the financial system, not only hurt our institutions but financial systems everywhere. Very few have even gotten a slap on the wrist.

        • I figure are done for and so is the U K as far as financial regulations go.
          Apparent we are fighting any serious reform being talked about in Pittsburgh this week.
          My hope is the European Union and Asia are strong enough to withstand another crisis brought about by Wall Street and they can go on without us as we sink into irrelevance.

          • I suggest we could also slip into sink holes, unstable bridges, crumbling infrastructure all around. And, if another city goes under, we’ll probably accept that too.

  3. I read this over at Shakesville … it’s a great extension with great suggestions!

  4. Entirely unrelated:
    The missus and her friends are in Ocean City MD for the weekend. She called and told me to go to the Kite Loft webcam to see them waving at me.
    Anyway I left it open and now you can see shadows, the sun is coming back out. It’s getting brighter.
    Too bad the same thing isn’t happening in Washington politics.

  5. Privatization of government , I always wondered if that was the idea of Reagan’s that Obama admired.

  6. I think that what is different nowdays is that there is a lack of leadership. People need a leader to rally around. After 8 yrs of George Bush and now Obama, people are left feeling apathetic about putting any energy into a Gov that just seems to funnel more money towards the wealthy, no matter what we do.

    The reason people get involved in politics is because there are genuine policies that they believe in, that they want to see trickle down and make a difference in this country. There is real excitement about fighting for something like that. In the last decade or so people haven’t be able to get excited about much. Protest another war that the majority of the Dems voted for? Support a health care bill that nobody really seems to understand? Join a phone tree to support bailouts for companies deemed to big to fail? It’s no wonder that people are getting apathetic.

    • But faux-populists like Glenn Beck are not leaders.

      They are demagogues who are playing Pied Piper and trying to return the GOP to power.

    • Apathy is crucial. Power grabs and apathy feed on each other. I think it may have been Studs Terkel who made this observation:

      The first thing a would-be dictator does, before they’re strong enough to be doing the whole police state thing, is try to make people feel helpless to change anything.

      The leaders (some of them) are causing the apathy. It’s no accident.

  7. How is it that we are most apathetic at a time when there’s the most to lose: no jobs, retirement accounts being depleted, two unpopular wars, health care missing in action. I simply don’t get it. If ever there was a time to call for action, this would be it.

    • What actions would work? Demstrating like in Pittsburgh and having the National Guard and police join together and crack skulls, using all their new techno weapons?

      • Mass, peaceful demonstrations are worth a shot. You say it like we should refrain from protesting out of fear. Even the right wing demonstrations this August seem to be well received.

        • How can we have massive protests when people are afraid of being associated with each other, like Hillary voters versus Obama supporters versus teapartiers? Everybody wants to belong to their own unique little political group instead of simply uniting as people to demand accountability from our government.

          • I would venture to guess that if everyone put a sign in their yard listing what we want that we would all discover that we have a lot in common. It may lead to civil discussion and some unity.

          • You’re describing three groups with little or nothing in common. why would they be protesting together?

            Why do you keep advocating for us to join forces with the teabaggers? We are not conservatives and don’t want what they want.

            I keep telling you that you are at the wrong blog. We are not teabaggers. Go recruit for the GOP somewhere else.

          • yttlk: Thank you for encouraging us to look at our own predispositions and to challenge the knee jerk reactions we have to others and the labels we saddle them with at the same time that we sit here and grouse at some of the labels assigned to us. It is easy to enshrine ourselves in how we are “different” (aka—better) than these others. It is a lot harder to meet them head on and engage in the kind of conversations that explore—do we have any common ground?

  8. chay, I think there is a real, growing anger out there, its not for sale, but this is all going to the best manipulators and shapers of the widespread backlash. and with the backlash against the rising indignation, there is widespread distrust of individual feelings that are not approved for mass consumption. ie anger bad, consumerism good, so go back to shopping and B0 handle the beckster-larouchie’s

    i am so hoping I will wake one day and this was all a dream.

    fairness doctrine ~ such idealized restraint

    • DG: I agree with you pov that the momentum is going to the best manipulators. Never was this more clearly played out than in the teaparties and the townhalls. At the very beginning of these outbursts there was genuine grassroots, real folks. How quickly the political elites and the pundits of both msm and blogisphere were to jump on these expressions and label them, try to manipulate them one way or another.

  9. Actually, that’s a point I want to make outside of a nested comment as well 🙂 So, herewith, a repeat:

    Apathy is crucial. Power grabs and apathy feed on each other. I think it may have been Studs Terkel who made this observation:

    The first thing a would-be dictator does, before they’re strong enough to be doing the whole police state thing, is try to make people feel helpless to change anything.

    The leaders (some of them) are causing the apathy. It’s no accident.

  10. I read through the Meet the Press Interview with WJC today. And read another interview with him that was linked here both relating to political process. As I read through these and thought about why I have always liked him as a politician and considered him a real leader, is that he is not either an ideologue or a party man. He is focused on solving problems. He is always looking at who might be his allies. He actually said in the second interview that he thought we had something to learn from Gingrich and his contract with America—not what was in that contract but that it was written down as a commitment.

    Today on AfPak he rejects the simple equation of its more troops or not more troops. He talks about the larger picture and that the decisions the pres needs to make are greater than troops and it is in the best interests of all of us to support taking the time to make a thorough assessment—that this is not Vietnam redux.

    His thrust and the thrust of this post and Daki’s it seems to me is that the anger and discontent we have with Obama, our government officials and our time is not about HRC supporters, O supporters, Repubs, etc—it is about the despair, discontent and fear that people have that nobody knows what they are doing–we do not trust them with the public business and believe in fact they are tending to every business other than the public business. I am not sure apathy is our problem because I hear political comments everywhere (but that may just be my environment) . The attention to teaparties and townhalls had some real involvement of real people—-and look how quickly these were attacked and disparaged. Maybe it’s not apathy that is problematic; maybe it is how quick all the pundits (msm and blogsters) are to try to label and pigeon hole anyone who speaks.

  11. This part would truly work:
    “Ending the legal fiction of corporate personhood. Only flesh-and-blood people can be put in jail, and real people who sign off on a corporation’s decisions must be held responsible for them.”

    This is funny:
    “The technical experts who electrified the rural US, ramped up a vast industrial juggernaut to help win the Second World War, built the interstate road system, got to the Moon, and invented Medicare did not belong to some strange species whose methods are inconceivable to us. They were, by and large (we’re talking about whole populations, so by and large is what matters) the same people as the ones now incapable of running a hamster in a cage without a kickback scheme to pay for its kibble.”

    followed by this:

    “The problem is that the powerful are less and less answerable to anyone. The problems Sachs lists in government, industry, finance, the military, everywhere, can be traced back to an escape from oversight and retribution. Incumbents who do a dreadful job are reelected. Bankers who crash the economy get bonuses. Generals who lie about troop requirements are promoted. News organizations that broadcast nonsense retain advertisers.”

    Bankers, generals, and Obama understand basically nothing about the increasingly complex technical details upon which our civilization is based. The people in charge ARE NOT the people who designed the technology in the first place. They ARE NOT related to them, and they DO NOT have the same abilities. They are social creatures, skilled at social status fights. Reality is subjective. Indeed, they claim that when they act, they create their own reality.

    Does that sound like a science nerd to you?

  12. I blame the rise of the MBAs myself (apologies to those with one, but I do). The experts are still there but struggling to come out from under a pile of people imposing processes, procedures, targets, assessments and appraisals to estimate the efficiency with targets etc worked. Their language is everywhere, obscuring what needs to be done with obsessive nagging about how much it costs and whether the money has been spent well. I don’t know an institution, state or private, which isn’t infested with these people, whose ultimate loyalty is to the institution and its bottom line, not the people supposedly being served nor the front line staff trying to serve them.

    • Isn’t all that crap supposed to be for the sake of accountability and competence?

      It’s like we know what the problem is but we can’t bring ourselves to fight the real cause.

      Instead, we come up with pretend accountability that takes way more time but does nothing.

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