Our Democracy’s ills: Politicians

If liberals and conservatives can agree about anything, it’s that our current political system is broken. So often they point fingers, either at one another or the media sources that fuel their base. Whether it’s fake news or Fox News, both sides say that it’s journalism that’s really the problem here.

I liken the situation to a child breaking a vase. Rather than answer “how did the vase break,” he says the donkey or the elephant did it. When the accused elephant or donkey replies in kind, the child hides behind the irrefutable fact that knowledge is temporary and information ephemeral -- my sources say you’re the problem.

But none of this fixes the *%&^ing vase!

There are a lot of academics who have many detailed papers on the topic of our broken democracy. If you put numbers to the idea, there’s a fair chance that several papers have even earned their authors tenure. This too does not fix the democracy. Nor will this blog. But I hope to inform conversations separate from the current political debate, with the aspiration that these observations, made during my time working in politics, will highlight the problems we’re not discussing.

There is far too great an emphasis on the questions we ask, not the answers we’ve reached

There are a number of conclusions that we’ve already reached about what good governments should do for their people. I like that my trash collector comes every week. I like that I have water, food, medicine and more that have been tested to ensure they’re safe. I like that roads exist, with varying maintenance plans.

Don’t underestimate the power of such conclusions. Saying definitively that the government has a purpose (such as educating its citizens) allows for the debate to end. After, experimentation and iteration can yield the best solution of all the possibilities. For example, say the best way to educate everyone in the country is through 10-hour school days, six days a week. There are a lot of little items that would have to change to accommodate that — I’m certain that teachers should be compensated more in such a scenario — but it’s accomplishable. It’s no longer a vague, abstract debate about public education. Rather, it becomes an attempt to find the “best” or experimenting to the “best.” It may be surprising, but this is relatively simple: we’d identify metrics for success (such as test scores, graduation rates and, perhaps, any number of x factors, such as patents filed) then conduct a/b testing in various school districts countrywide, iterating until the country achieves the best solution.

I don’t think our democracy can handle the above example because no politician wants to be in the failing group of the testing. No politician would ever want to tell their citizens that they’re testing out new techniques with their constituents’ children. Rather, they want to say that the teachers unions are out of control (they might be) or that education privatization is a way to line the pockets of wealthy donors (it can be)... the point is, a politician wants to devolve the debate. They want to emphasize questions, not answers.

And they often can do just that, because the public has psychological hiccups.

people in crowd.png

Even rational, informed middle class voters who went to graduate school at ivy league institutions have bad judgment sometimes

There are stacks of books on how flawed our thinking is as human beings — we don’t consider possibilities outside of what we’re shown, we allow “anchors” to skew our estimates, we have a far greater confidence in our ability to predict the future than what has ever occured, and we’re spectacularly bad at applying our own mistakes to future decisions. For much more on this, a great resource is “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

It should be no surprise then that in a democracy, where we’re asking a broad swath of people of various mental acuities to make important decisions about the fate of the country, the populace wouldn’t be able to answer in its own best interest. Even insisting that they could is borderline ludacris — if I can’t pick out a car that makes sense for me and my family, because, dammit, that new Tesla looks cool, then how can I be trusted to pick out a president? Or, perhaps more importantly, an office that I know next to nothing about but makes a dramatic impact on my life, such as a member of the local water board.

The facts that information is always incomplete and the kinds of people attracted to modern politics are of a salesman type don’t help things. I don’t know why a politician, often armed with only a juris doctorate, has any say whatsoever in how a road is constructed. As is often the case when a human receives a complex question, he’d likely substitute in a simpler one — such as where will my constituents be the least pissed off. This is why there are bridges to nowhere, because our politicians suffer from the mental hangups we all do too.

Which leads to my final point.

Politicians, perhaps more than any group, have a severe aversion to risk

I touched on this briefly above with the education example, but a politician is elected through a popularity contest. Doing risky and controversial things means people might not like you. We need to have risky, big and controversial things done in the face of impending technological change. This is a paradox.

Currently, our society is at an influx. We’re on the precipice of mass automation — where driverless cars can truly take over the roads, where robotics can make every widget, and software can begin writing itself. This is beyond monkeys typing in a room and creating Hamlet, this is reconsidering what it means to be human.

What we need now is big, bold thinking — sophisticated ways to modernize and adapt our institutions. For example, why not allow the government to automate as well? Say, driverless trash collectors. I mentioned such an idea in a meeting with policymakers and they laughed at my humor. I was serious. “Someone has never been in the room during labor negotiations,” one of the members gently chided my creativity. Laughter continued, despite the fact that such automation would help solve one of government’s biggest problems: It has financially overextended due to poor labor negotiations in the past. Most local, state, and even the federal, governments are broke—probably because they tried to please too many people.

In sum: Politicians are at fault for our broken politics. They may be symptomatic of their times, but we must demand from them something more -- leadership. Right now, our government isn’t trying to lead, even when we need it.

This conflict — the dearth of leadership from our political class -- led me to write Populace. If politicians don’t get their act together soon, then the story is likely to end one way, and it’s not altogether bright for our people.

Alex Wilson