Monday, May 23

Part 6, Stuck at the intersection of government and the mass age

The following is from the first part of my discussion with Michael Wright, which I omitted from Part 5 of the Stuck at the Intersection of Government and the Mass Age series in the effort to chop down a very long post. If you are a new reader, the URL for the first five parts of the series is shown at the end of this post.

White Noise

P: I’ve noted four trends and how they interact to create a kind of white noise. Taken together they screen out situations that are vitally important for the American public to understand.

One trend is the industrialization of academia; that, combined with the US federal government’s expansion and reliance on academic opinion, eclipsed the generalist and created a tyranny of specialization in government policy and planning. That blocks Americans without relevant academic credentials but with relevant experience from advising the government about problems the post WW2 administrations have been tasked to deal with.

Running alongside this trend, and fed by it, is a journalism profession that by the 1970s had ossified into a collegial sphere, which excluded “experience-based” reporters in favor of credentialed journalism majors.

By experience-based I mean people whose knowledge of a situation or field comes from direct experience rather than research. The trend toward “soft” news that began in the 1980s brought some of those people back into media, but “hard news” editorial policy became dominated by journalism professionals. This created the weird situation of an empirical endeavor—reporting—dominated by theoretical views.

Running alongside those trends, and fed by the Cold War, is a foreign office—the US Department of State—that by 2000 had gathered more power than all three branches of US government. This is an opaque power, remarkably evocative of the Mandarins’ power under Chinese dynastic rule.

The fourth trend is the industrialization of the American two-party political system. An army of professionals from sales, marketing, legal, statistical, accounting, public relations, fundraising, and various academic fields raised up to sell product to the political party machines and their candidates.

The industry depends on framing every issue under the sun in political terms, which puts the cart before the horse. That’s why large numbers of Americans know nothing about an issue but know exactly where they stand on it. The industry that serves the two-party system is not focused on informing, it’s focused on winning a war.

M: You’re saying that not any one of these trends but how they interact screens out a lot of what’s happening from the general public and makes simple solutions hard to see.

P: There are contributing factors, and trends spinning off from the four I outlined but yes; put those four trends together and there’s no mystery why citizens of the most advanced, powerful society in history were totally unprepared for the 21st Century.

M: I’d push that observation back to the late 20th Century. The hi-tech and dotcom bubbles bursting, the Enron scandal, the 9/11 attack and what the Bush administration considered to be the betrayal by the French and German governments over Iraq—all those collapses reflected situations that had been building for years before the turn of the century. But they came as a surprise to the public, as did massive offshoring of US hi-tech and clerical jobs.


P: What I’ve seen for a long time is that many offshore situations fall back hard on America but there’s a looping situation. Bad trade, economic, development, and strategic policies originating in the most powerful Western countries have a negative impact on less developed countries that for one reason or another have a card to play against the Western countries. When the negative impact loops back to the USA, this brings forth more US policies that treat only the symptoms, which loops back on the other countries, which loops back to the USA.

M: I’m thinking of China, of US policy toward China during the Cold War and since.

P: China is a perfect example. However, the loop-de-loop is an old story in civilization. What’s new is that given today’s human population number, it doesn’t even take some guys with a major case of road rage or a government’s sneaky covert war to wreak wide-scale havoc. Bad policy ripples fast among large populations, and the ripples are virtually impossible to stop or control.

The flip side of the loop-de-loop is that the mountain of policy mistakes during the past 40 years represents a trove of data, which if mined properly can provide solutions that short-circuit the loop. And the flip side of the problems generated by large populations is that there are unprecedented numbers of people who have experience solving just about any problem you can think of.

M: That way of looking at things helps explain your optimism, which I don’t share. You’re saying the problem has generated its own solution, if we could find a way to utilize it.

Stop, Look and Listen

P: It could be argued that to view a situation in problematical terms is to initiate the first stage of a solution but yes, this is an incredibly hopeful time in history to be living through. I suppose I see things that way because I speak with so many people—

M: [laughing] Pundita walkabout routine. Keeping in touch with the realm.

P: Don’t be mean or I’ll clam up. I prefer to think of it as my Miss Marple routine—

M: Washington, DC as the village of St. Mary Mead.

P: People from all over the world and from all over the country, and from every walk of life, head for Washington, DC and Northern Virginia during the spring and summer; they do so for different reasons, not just for tourism. So what better way to learn what visitors to my village are thinking about the USA and the world than to strike up conversations with them?

M: I see you more as Holmes, disappearing from Baker Street for days on end, putting on a disguise and chatting up—

P: Well, no. It’s learning to adopt the village mentality at least temporarily: everybody minding everybody else’s business. Village life is stifling because of that attitude. On the other hand, the behavior of a couple kids walking around in full-length black overcoats in summer weather doesn’t go unnoticed and unremarked.

M: The Colombine murderers.

P: Yes. A neighbor of one of the boys said after the massacre, “If only we’d noticed things in our neighborhood, we might have alerted his parents that he was acting strangely, but we just never had the time to notice what with commuting and work.”

M: A street full of neighbors living as complete strangers; that’s modern life in many places. So you try to get around that and what the national media presents about America—

P: Regular conversations with Americans from all around the country prevent my thinking from being too much Inside the Beltway and remind me that there’s much intelligence and experience in this country; the amount is staggering, if you stop to think about it. We really benefit from our immigrant heritage.

M: Okay but all that intelligence and experience isn’t reflecting at the political and government levels.

P: At the macro level, often not, although one shouldn’t underestimate the intelligence of Bush’s democracy doctrine. He’s not getting his ideas out of thin air; he’s sketching conclusions that have been rolling around the development/foreign policy establishments for years.

Many people have figured out that there’s a cause-and-effect connection between a free society and unleashed creativity, of the kind needed to fuel market-driven economies and avert aggression against other countries. Bush’s contribution has been to emphasize the need for genuine democracy instead of a stage show.

The problem is translating that observation into sound policy regarding government aid, development loans and private sector investment in developing countries. It’s at that level where you see idiocy. But if you dig deep enough, you can usually find someone in government who knew it was idiocy and argued against it, and got shot down.

M: So he—

P: Or she—

M: So he or she is up against a system that favors compromises, or a prevailing view, or a bureaucratic culture or whatever, instead of the best solution.

P: They are not “up against” the system; they are part of the system. Government isn’t set up to be a problem-solver; it’s set up to govern, which translates to a containment approach to problems. The bright ones figure that out soon after they go to work for government or they become very cynical or live on anti-depressants. In a democratic government, the best you can do is put forward a good idea, fight for it as hard as you dare, and hope that the prevailing political winds catch it and blow it forward.

M: But now, since 9/11, there’s a lot of pressure on governments here and around the world to actually solve problems that have taken decades and even centuries to build.

P: The pressure is increasing, all around the world. The Internet and satellite TV is bringing problems to light that were long hidden.

Stuck at the Intersection series
(In order of publication)

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