I’ve been thinking about the failures of government recently (1 , 2 ), and it turns out 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.