Tag Archives: governance

Technology Versus Governance

I have a question I’ve been pondering for years. Perhaps one of the people who read this blog can answer it–or at least shed some much-needed light on it.

Here’s the thing: I am constantly coming across news items about technological progress that is incredibly impressive, innovations that promise to solve real problems faced by real humans. Here’s just one recent example:  an effort to bring electricity to almost half of Africa’s 1.3 billion population, which currently lives without it, and not by replicating the way most electricity is generated and transmitted in countries whose populations are almost universally served today.

As the article reports,

The results of fossil-fuel-based, centralized, power-plant strategies of the past 50 years speak for themselves: high levels of pollution and slow rollouts due to high construction and fuel costs. Instead, we need to focus on minigrid-based electricity powered by solar power and batteries, which can provide 24-hour clean energy. And because they are decentralized—with the electricity that each community needs provided by solar farms in the area (optimized through artificial intelligence and Internet of Things technologies) and without long, expensive transmission lines—minigrids are often low-cost and deployable in weeks. Already, Energicity has brought solar-powered electricity to 40,000 people, and our goal for 2022 is to reach 250,000 more, across four countries in West Africa.

You can read more detail at the link.

Reading about new methods of providing clean energy, or new ways to communicate, or new ways to pay for goods and services (many of which are also new) is hardly a unique experience. I see similar reports on an almost daily basis, and they make me applaud the ingenuity and scientific “know-how” of so many of my fellow humans. We’ve come a long way from inventing the ax by attaching a stone to a wooden handle!

Good for us! We’re resourceful creatures!

So why–why–are we unable to apply that ingenuity and intellectual rigor to the mechanisms of communal life–to systems of government?

I don’t hear our retrograde politicians criticizing the folks who invented the iPhone, or developed the Internet. Even our insane anti-vaxxers aren’t pontificating against the discovery of penicillan. They aren’t refusing to board airplanes (at least, not pre-pandemic). They have computers. They drive cars outfitted with the newest features, and  use GPS to get from point A to point B. They talk to Siri and Alexa. I could go on and on.

And they use these things without the dimmest idea of how they work, or “what is in them.”

Our relationship with technology is evidence of respect for talent and expertise. You don’t see the men and women who are creating these new tools boasting that they don’t really  know much about whatever their factories produce;  recruiters aren’t out looking for employees who  have absolutely no prior experience with, or training relevant to whatever widget the factory is producing. The managers of those factories don’t level their most withering critiques at workers who actually know what they are doing.

Only in political life do people consider ignorance of government and the policy process a virtue. Only in political life do we award our support to people who are clearly clueless about the imperatives and mechanics of governance–at least, if we think we’d like to have a beer with them.

Only in political life do ideologues encourage their own followers to reject the products of expertise–most recently, to risk dying rather than take advantage of the knowledge of others if that rejection is thought to advantage the know-nothings who aspire to elective office.

Bottom line: For every genuine innovation in governing, like the “doughnut economy” that is a subject of experimentation in Amsterdam and a few other places, there are literally thousands of innovations in technology. We humans are really good at invention, at subduing our environments, making daily life easier and more interesting. Not only that, most of us applaud those innovations; we consider them evidence of progress.

Why don’t we approach our governing systems that way?






Back To Basics

Yesterday, I posted about Wang Huning, the behind-the-scenes Chinese public intellectual whose philosophy is evidently immensely influential in that country, and whose six-month visit to the U.S. triggered his disenchantment with Enlightenment rationalism/liberalism.

Wang reportedly came to believe that culture is a vital component of political stability–that  a society’s “software,” by which he means culture, values, and attitudes, shapes political destiny as much or more as the “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions) most of us consider far more influential.

Since I read only the article to which I linked, I don’t know whether Wang ever addressed the extent to which hardware–especially economic systems–influences and shapes or distorts culture. In the U.S., for example, sociological research tells us that capitalism has strengthened America’s cultural emphasis on individualism.

Be that as it may, Wang’s impressions of America, and the conclusions he drew from his observations, underscore one of the enduring questions of political philosophy: what is government for? What are the tasks that must be done collectively–through government–and what tasks are properly left to the private and voluntary sectors?

I don’t think it is an over-simplification to suggest that American Right-wingers agree with Wang in one crucial respect: the importance of culture and tradition. (In their case, the supreme importance of their culture and tradition.) The Right thus believes that it is government’s job to protect their culture–a culture which gives social dominance to White Christian males and facilitates a dog-eat-dog form of market capitalism.

The Left–which, in America these days, includes pretty much anything and anyone to the left of radical Right-wing Republicanism–sees the job of government very differently. For most of us, the ideal government is boring; it is (or should be) almost entirely concerned with building and maintaining the physical and social infrastructure that underlies and enables genuine human liberty–which we define as the ability to pursue one’s personal life goals. So we want government to attend to the public safety, build and maintain the structures that allow us to travel, communicate and collaborate, and–ideally–provide a social safety net sufficient to prevent poverty and a degree of inequality that endangers social stability.

What we label the American Left today includes a very wide a swath of opinion, so it is inevitable that there will be many “intra-Left” arguments about what that infrastructure should look like, how robust it should be, and how government should go about funding and maintaining it. But virtually everyone on the Left would define the role of government in terms that are utterly incompatible with those of the radical Right.

These incompatible views of what government is for have led to incommensurate demands on government.

In today’s America, the Left (pretty much across the broad spectrum of Left-of-Fascism opinion and despite disputes about how to achieve these goals) wants roads and bridges repaired, healthcare access expanded,   and voting rights protected. It also wants the wealthy to pay taxes at the higher rates that were historically imposed.  Today’s (far more unified) Right wants school history courses censored and trans students ostracized, women’s reproductive liberties curtailed, voting made more difficult for minorities, and White Christian privilege protected. it also wants taxes further reduced, especially on corporations and the rich.

The Bill of Rights, as I have repeatedly noted, is a list of things that government is forbidden to do;  the nation’s Founders did not believe that government’s job included protection of a particular worldview, religion or status.

Wang’s belief in the importance of culture isn’t wrong. But cultures develop over time; they are the result of numerous factors that interact to influence social mores, attitudes and values. In the U.S.,over time, the culture has been heavily influenced by the values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and by the other aspirations built into our constituent documents.

Most Americans have been “acculturated” to see government’s role as a provider of infrastructure (however narrowly or broadly defined)–not as a protector of privilege, which is what today’s Right demands in its breathtakingly radical effort to remake both American law and culture.

There’s a reason the Right wants to censor and distort the teaching of accurate history. Those who control the historical narrative control the culture–and the country.

Testosterone And Government

Okay, today’s post is a bit “off the wall,” so indulge me…

 I was fascinated to read the results of a recent study linking testosterone to aggressive behavior and selfishness. The results confirmed previous research findings  that associated selfishness with testosterone. Evidently, testosterone acts to decrease activity in the brain’s temporoparietal junction, which is a region associated with generosity, and “reduces consideration of the needs and desires of others, which leads to more selfish behaviors.” 

The more testosterone, the greater these effects.

The researchers are careful to note that their findings don’t necessarily suggest testosterone inherently makes people selfish, but that testosterone “reduced concern for the profits of others.”

While this study only looked at healthy, young adult males — and thus may or may not apply to other ages and genders — it does add to the pile of studies suggesting increased testosterone can lead to decreased consideration for the needs of others. What this study also reveals are the neural mechanisms by which that happens.

These results encouraged me to consider a number of (highly speculative) theories.

In early human history, men who produced ample amounts of testosterone were undoubtedly advantaged–their aggressiveness would have paid off in the hunt, and more successful hunters would be advantaged in the competition for the most attractive and fertile women.

Early men were thus socially dominant, and that male dominance continued–undoubtedly assisted by high levels of testosterone that gave business “movers and shakers” an aggressive edge, and contributed to the high status enjoyed by warriors of various types.

Women, of course, were disadvantaged for eons by our fertility; without the ability to control our reproduction, women have been relegated to a homemaking role and hampered in efforts to enter the workforce.

These roles were cemented into society through the various cultural influences that accepted them as givens: religions that preached about women’s submission, social mores that stressed expected aspects of femininity and masculinity.

That all began to change with the invention of reliable birth control and the development of economies that no longer rely on workers’ brute strength. When the value of an individual to the workforce depends primarily upon intellect and the ability to work well with others, enhanced aggressiveness and “decreased consideration for the needs of others” are no longer assets.

The metrics by which we evaluate the competence of government are also undergoing change. Those of us who believe that good governance requires compassion and unifying social policies look longingly at the Jacinda Arderns and Angela Merkels of the world, and view blustering bullies like Vladimir Putin, Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump as unfortunate–and dangerous– throwbacks.

Perhaps–on balance– women are better equipped to govern the world we currently inhabit.

That said, these speculations are obviously far too broad-brush. There are plenty of belligerent and selfish women and I encounter increasing numbers of thoughtful, caring men. Furthermore, testosterone is only one small element of nature in the still-hazy relationship between nature and nurture. 

Still, it is interesting to step back and view the arc of history and social change through a biological lens–and to consider whether the development of methods to balance people’s hormones would lead to world peace or, in the alternative, to an unintended dystopia…

Policy Versus Personality

A major benefit of the transition from Trump to Biden is that we have an opportunity to leave the politics of personality and return to boring and oh-so-welcome debates about public policy. Rather than acrimonious exchanges pitting those of us who were appalled by the buffoon and his incompetent mafia appointments against those who endorsed his assault on American values, we are gradually returning to arguments about lawmaking.

I thought about that change as I was going through some of my old teaching materials, and came across notes for my lecture on the requisites of good public policy. Since the demotion of Mitch McConnell means we may actually see policies enacted rather than stymied, I thought I’d share them.

Consider it a framework for further discussion….

The first question lawmakers must address is firmly rooted in political philosophy: does this proposal lie an area that government should control or even be involved in? Americans have very different ideas about the proper scope and authority of the state, and those ideas will affect the perceived legitimacy of any policy chosen.

One of the reasons that issues like equal civil rights for LBGTQ citizens and women’s control over their own reproduction are so salient and contested is because they begin with a profound disagreement over the legitimacy of government laws that are seen (I believe correctly)as privileging some religious beliefs over others.

This question—the right of government to decide certain matters—underlies many other policy debates. (Masks, for example.)To what extent should government dictate business practices? What areas of the economy should be left to market forces, and what services should be delivered collectively?

Disagreements about the propriety of government action are at the heart of many policy debates.

Once there is agreement that government action is appropriate, however, there are four further elements that will determine whether the policy that emerges is sound.

First, we need to agree upon both the existence and nature of the problem. Is the growing economic gap between rich and poor a problem, or simply an expected attribute of market economies? If it is problematic, why? What accounts for its growth and existence, and why and how is it damaging? Is there unacceptable racism in American policing? How do we know? If so, why has it persisted? If those making policy cannot agree that a situation or condition or existing law is a problem, and cannot agree on why it is a problem, correcting it is obviously impossible.

Second, once policymakers concur on the existence and nature of the problem, they will need to come to some agreement on the efficacy of proposed solutions. If there is agreement that the gap between rich and poor is impeding economic growth and generating social unrest, they will need to determine the probable causes of that gap, and analyze the probable consequences of the various steps being advocated to diminish it. Which “fixes” are likely to accomplish the goal? What does the available evidence suggest?Do the policymakers even agree upon the outlines of that goal, let alone the likelihood that a specific approach will accomplish it?

Third, does government have the ability to implement the solution that is chosen? Does the unit of government making the decision have the authority to impose it? Is the chosen remedy something that government can do? Would enforcement violate Constitutional principles or democratic norms?

If a proposed policy meets these standards—if there is agreement on the existence and nature of the problem, agreement on a chosen remedy, and the ability to implement it without doing violence to the country’s legal framework—a fourth necessity (and one most often ignored) arises: Are policymakers willing to evaluate the consequences of that policy? Are they willing to monitor its effectiveness and modify or reverse it if it doesn’t work, or has unanticipated negative consequences?

As I used to tell my students, Ideological, cultural and economic interests make each of these steps difficult. But difficult is not impossible–if  we elect people of good will who understand that their mission is to advance the common good.

Okay…we need to work on that last bit…


The People’s Business

The polarization that characterizes American politics these days begins with very different world-views–and very different beliefs about what government is and what it is for. Those differences used to exist within a “big tent” Republican Party, back when there were still a lot of perfectly sane Republicans. (I still remember those times; I told you I’m old…)

I still remember the telling difference between the rhetoric employed by Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who liked to refer to citizens as “customers” of government, and the Hudnut Administration that preceded Goldsmith’s. I served in the Hudnut Administration, and although we didn’t borrow from business terminology, I think it’s fair to say that we considered citizens to be  shareholders, not customers.

We understood that citizens are the owners of the government enterprise.

So far, the Biden Administration has taken steps to do the people’s business, to reflect a belief that government should actively pursue the public good as reflected in the desires of a majority of its citizen-owners. As Heather Cox Richardson recently noted, Biden has refused to engage with the craziness and has instead acted on matters ordinary people care about.

Biden is using executive orders to undercut the partisanship that has ground Congress to a halt for the past several years. While Biden’s predecessor tended to use executive actions to implement quite unpopular policies, Biden is using them to implement policies that most Americans actually like but which could never make it through Congress, where Republicans hold power disproportionate to their actual popularity.

According to a roundup by polling site FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s executive actions cover issues that people want to see addressed. Eighty-three percent of Americans—including 64% of Republicans—support a prohibition on workplace discrimination over sexual identification, 77% (including 52% of Republicans) want the government to focus on racial equity, 75% want the government to require masks on federal property, and 68% like the continued suspension of federal student loan repayments. A majority of Americans also favor rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords, and so on.

There is, of course, a limit to what can be accomplished by Executive Order. Biden has thus far shown an admirable intent to “stay in his lane”–to restrict his actions to those that can be defended as appropriate to the Executive Branch. But doing the people’s business–fulfilling the numerous needs and demands of government’s “owners”–will require action by Congress.

Congress, unfortunately, is massively dysfunctional.

The current debate in Congress about the filibuster illustrates that today’s partisan divide is between those who believe government is obliged to do the people’s business–to carry out the wishes of the owners of the enterprise– and those who quite clearly believe that their role is to prevent that business from being conducted (unless, of course, the business at hand involves a tax cut that will benefit their donors.)

The nation’s Founders contemplated a Congress that would engage in negotiation and compromise, and would then proceed to pass measures by a simple majority vote–not a super-majority. Today, thanks to the evolution of the filibuster over the years, it takes sixty votes to pass anything, no matter how innocuous.

Of course, the Founders also believed that the people we would elect to Congress would be “the best and brightest”–public-spirited, educated and reasonable men (yes, I know…) who would take their legislative responsibilities seriously. I wonder what they’d think of the gun-toting, conspiracy-believing wackos who are currently walking the halls of the Capitol and warning about fires started by Jewish space-lasers …

Not to get overly partisan here, but those lunatics are all Republicans…..and they have no concept of–or ability to do– “the people’s business.”