This is the nineteenth essay in a series on the website of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii about the government and the marketplace that I began in late 2013. Although there are many fine textbooks about government, such as the McGraw-Hill/Glencoe offering “United States Government: Democracy in Action” written by Professor Richard C. Remy, I wanted to show the nitty-gritty of how an actual government operative like myself thinks through public policy. Hopefully this provided a peek behind the curtain that people will find helpful.
One lesson that can be derived from this is that you cannot forever stay at a high level of generality in doing policy—ultimately you have to confront the detail and–far from it being menial work–it is sometimes the key to the analysis. Certain key facts can drastically change the big picture vision that you have.
In this essay, I want to state (and to some extent restate) ten simple truths about ourselves and our society that we need to acknowledge if we are going to solve our problems with our political system. Unfortunately, our partisan politics currently resemble a marriage descending into divorce more than the mature working out of a plan for the future by a husband and wife who love each other and intend to stay married until death do them part. So, let me get on with my “marriage counseling.”
First, although we have a republic with representative democracy, not direct democracy, we citizens cannot ignore the fiscal problem we face because it is existential. We have $20 trillion in federal debt, between $75 and $100 trillion in federal unfunded liabilities, in an economy with a GDP of about $17.5 trillion … and this is not even counting the fiscal issues at the state and local levels.
In the foreseeable future, annual interest payments on the federal debt will exceed the entire defense budget, which is already many times larger than the defense budgets for several developed countries combined. What I can’t understand is how people can hug and kiss their children and grandchildren and tell them that they are loved when we are allowing this to happen. To me, there is not only something schizophrenic about that behavior, there is something deeply immoral and irresponsible. Maybe I should rat everyone out to their State’s child protective services agency?
We need to recognize that a financial assertion like: “revenues minus expenses equals net income” is not a value judgment, it is simply a constraint imposed by reality, not unlike gravity or the need for humans to breathe oxygen. How high taxes should be and how high spending should be are value judgments, but they are also subject to a constraint imposed by reality, which is that if we get the mix of government and the market wrong, we will end up with a shrinking pie and even more fighting about dividing it up. More importantly, if one searches for the primary cause of the partisan polarization in our country, I would argue that it is the federal debt because (a) it is forcing us towards a series of hard choices that will require a political knife fight; and (b) the public believes that the debt is the result of bipartisan consensus and compromise.
Second, just because a policy is best for our country and/or economic growth, doesn’t mean that it is best for you personally. So if you are always going to think only about your own personal interests, sometimes that will not be in everyone’s best interest. Sometimes we have to take one for the team, as it were. But there is an open question about whether people should vote their own interests or vote the national interest. I’m not going to resolve that issue; it’s something that we all must wrestle with. But to me, we’re all in the same boat; as America goes, so we all go.
Third, correlation is not necessarily causation. What we mean by “direct” correlation is simply “significant” correlation. But note that even a “significant” correlation does not necessarily establish causation. The world is complex and there are often multiple variables/factors at work, so it is very easy to misdiagnose the cause of a problem and head off in the wrong direction with an off-target solution.
Fourth, a democracy and a market are made up of separate individuals who can’t read each other’s minds. We have the technological means to disseminate information, but we are overwhelmed with information that is garbage and sometimes even intentionally fraudulent. As Michael Douglas says in the movie “The American President” about the public: “the reason they eat the sand is because they don’t know the difference.”
We have to do better at getting ourselves and our descendants to cut through the bull. In addition, we can possibly assume the wisdom of crowds, but we cannot assume away the perfect dissemination of all relevant information on any given issue throughout that crowd. That is why letting polling or social media buzz or the 24 hour cable news cycle determine policy isn’t necessarily a good idea. Remember that in the early days of our republic, the members of Congress could only communicate with someone back home through a handwritten letter carried by a person on a horse. Representative democracy wasn’t just a principle; there was no other way to do it. Does a shepherd poll his flock of sheep to determine what grazing area they head to? By no means!
Fifth, the political parties must run themselves more like a business in understanding the expectations of their market (i.e. voters). This isn’t nearly as complicated as it might seem. There are two implied warranties under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) that describe the standard market expectations of the American public when buying goods. The implied warranty of merchantability promises that the item will work when used for its intended purpose. The implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose promises that the item will work for the particular purpose that the user is buying it if the seller has reason to know of that purpose. In other words, instead of painting vanishing castles in the air, policy has to work in real life for the folks. Fraud on consumers is illegal for merchant sellers, even if it is not technically illegal for politicians. Finally, a reading of the U.S. Constitution and “The Federalist Papers” will reveal a powerful mistrust for political parties and factions. Those politicians who put political party over all else do not understand how our Founding Fathers thought.
Sixth, process matters and purely result-oriented behavior can be self-destructive.
Seventh, our culture, our institutions and our politics are a reflection of ourselves, so pointing the finger at someone else has certain limitations. Also, while a bit of reflection and self-criticism is good, hating on ourselves unduly can have bad consequences.
Eighth, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said “you are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Now, Moynihan wasn’t just a typical U.S. senator, he had a Ph.D in history from Tufts University. I think Americans are entitled to have different opinions, but there is such intolerance of that idea today that our politics has become dysfunctional. To me arguing about political opinions, as opposed to the facts that underlie them, is like arguing about whether Beethoven is a better composer than Mahler or whether Penelope Cruz is better looking than Nicole Kidman. It is largely a waste of time and exacerbates divisions unnecessarily. Sometimes in life, we have to agree to disagree. Opinions are emotional because they reflect our values, beliefs and personal identity. They tend to make for an overheated conversation.
Ninth, consider why is an inquiry into the bad faith motives of your debating opponent is a foolish waste of time. Answer: from the perspective of strict logic, the truth or falsity of a statement cannot be determined in reference to the identity or status of the speaker, but only in reference to the statement itself.
Tenth, we should remind ourselves that neither power nor ideology are ends in themselves. We should seek power solely to improve our nation, not to remedy personal insecurities or to vindicate preconceived notions. We use ideology because we believe it helps lead us in the right general direction, but it is a blunt instrument, by definition a reductionist view of reality.
Part of the reason that some politicians cannot solve certain problems is because they are ideologically incapable of doing so. In other words, they are no longer scientists confronting facts, but priests refusing to conform to this world. Worldly success tends to go to those who confront reality, the afterlife is for the penitent (not that I have personal, empirical knowledge of the latter, you understand). Newsflash: if someone is incapable of solving a given problem due to his or her ideology, then maybe we shouldn’t give them that particular task.
To sum up, I don’t think our country needs a divorce. Just as with any important relationships, personal or professional, the question is mainly whether we can talk to each other and work through the issues together. Pride and vengefulness aren’t helpful in this process, and haven’t we all had our fill of self-righteousness and hypocrisy? The idea that we will try to form a “more perfect union” is partly the idea that we cannot get a divorce and we should try to make the best of it. That’s the foundation of traditional marriage by the way—not “I love you, you make me feel good,” but “I got no way out of this gig, so I’m going to soldier on.”
The author formerly worked for the State of Hawaii as an insurance regulator, but his view as expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of his former employer. He has a B.A. from Columbia University, a J.D. from UCLA, an M.B.A. from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a CPCU.
“Natural selection in the Darwinian sense doesn’t exist very much anymore with respect to human beings. **** “Today, the idea of survival of the fittest doesn’t necessarily mean survival of the strongest.” From page 112 of “Business A-Z: the Definitive Guide for Busy Executives,” by Lloyd Lim (Tate Publishing 2017).