Government Chicken, Government Egg

I spend my days wringing my soft, manicured hands about climate change and peak oil, and I wish someone would hurry up and act already before we all take to mixed martial arts to decide who gets dinner (a scenario in which I wouldn’t eat much). Traditionally, federal government fixes such Big Problems (as if we’ve faced problems this big before), but it’s not doing anything in this instance – in fact our government seems increasingly hamstrung generally. Why?

Explanations abound: A growing left-right ideological split, the recession, habitually neglected campaign promises, undue influence of the rich, etc. I read an article (no link because I lost it) in which a Chinese government official suggested that the US suffers from too much democracy, the idea being that our government is a squawking cacophony of conflicting voices who collectively check-and-balance each other into legislative oblivion.

To this list I shall add another explanation.

Faith in government is historically low (one reason why many now favor small government and low taxes). We think of this as a consequence of crap government, and it is. But it might also be the other way around.

That is, our outlook might be a self-fulfilling prophesy – government may suck because we believe it sucks.

Here’s what I mean: because we don’t believe in government, we elect officials who also don’t believe in it either, and they don’t try to improve it. So the government gets shittier, we trust government even less, and downward goes the spiral.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – the dynamic is common. Businesses and armies, for example, fail often when their people stop believing in their mission or each other. We might even argue that lost faith is the root of most organizational failure (save for where everyone’s on a plane and they crash into a mountain and eat each other or whatever). Why should government be an exception? In fact it’s probably at greater risk for “confidence death spiral” than other organizations, because it involves huge numbers of people with diverse interests and there’s no clear mission to ensure everyone rows in the same direction.

If I’m right, how could we arrest the downward spiral? It’s a daunting problem because it would seem to require that we restore our faith government *before* there’s any reason to. How?

A crisis might do it. There’s precedent in World War II, which dragged our country out of a doldrums. But there the medicine was as bad as the disease.  How to break the confidence spiral without, you know, the deaths of millions?

We might look to how other organizations, like businesses, break out of the spiral. When I do, it seems to me that most turnarounds require new leadership with the mandate to make big changes.

But here we regrettably return to the idea that maybe we suffer from too much democracy. Our government is built for gradualism, which is wise: it prevents despots for example. But it also means that nobody can make big changes, which may mean that a key to organizational turnaround (after things have gotten dire) may be off limits to us.

It’s also worth remembering that our democracy was in fact designed for a smaller and less diverse population. Under those circumstances, perhaps it was easier to make big changes. Maybe our population has outgrown our government.

If so, then one way out of the downward spiral might be to transfer power from federal to state governments, who have smaller constituencies and for whom therefore democracy might work better (much of the action on climate change and energy reform is now at the state level, which might not be an accident).

Another benefit of more state power: If a bunch of small governments take the place of one big one, they can try more “experiments” in governance. I think the idea comes from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, but I read it long ago so I’m not sure. If a bunch of groups are free to try out a bunch of different things, one or a few of them are likely to hit on something that works. When the other groups see that it works, they’ll adopt it too. It’s natural selection for policy.

We can see this mechanism at work in Europe. Example: a few years ago, London, which at the time had some of the worst gridlock on Earth, installed cameras downtown and used them to impose fees on drivers coming through at certain times of day (AKA congestion pricing). It worked: it killed gridlock, filled city coffers, brought foot traffic to key retail areas, etc. Since then the practice has spread.

This also happens in the States, but perhaps to a lesser degree because states are constrained by our powerful federal government. Perhaps we could supercharge the process by shifting power further toward the states.

But who has the power to make that happen? Again, probably nobody (remember: too much democracy). On the other hand, if the Smallistas bent on shrinking federal government are successful, maybe states will end up with more power. On the other other hand, the Smallistas want to shrink state governments too.

And so I circle back to the point I always make and my reason for writing this blog: It’s up to individuals. It’s up to each of us to throw off the yoke of our habits of acting and living and make change happen around us no matter how hard or insufficient it may seem. If enough of us do, the effects will add up and spread. If we fail then we fail trying, and that’s good enough.

Anyway it’s better than status quoing ourselves to death.

“Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is most important that you do it.”

-Gandhi, the dead dude who I most wish weren’t dead.

-From the Sea

Posted April 25, 2011 in Random Thoughts | 4 Comments


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  1. Joseph Cotten says:

    Great post, Nick! Really good points all around. I especially like your take on the downward spiral of government distrust:

    “…because we distrust government, we elect officials who distrust it too, and they shrink rather than improve it.”

    That’s a very good point. Also, on the idea of empowering states, it reminds me of how the US Legislative branch was originally setup: the House of Representatives were elected by the populace, but the Senators were appointed by the state legislatures—NOT by a general election like it is now. If we went back to that constitutional model, it would put power back into the hands of the states, which would in turn make state elections more important to the voters. That in turn would turn everyone’s attention back to their state, and pave the way for some of the reforms you point toward.

  2. Nick B. says:

    Thank you kindly! RE: legislative branch – historical ignoramus that I am, I didn’t know that. So you might even argue that as our country has grown and made democracy increasingly unwieldy, we’ve shifted power from states to the fed to make it even more unwieldy. Having completely failed to consider any of the benefits of this centralization though, it’s still hard for me to say what I really believe.

  3. Kristen says:

    Just a little thorn in your sides regarding the idea of giving states more power like they used to have… What was happening back then regarding the election of Senators was to protect the governing/economic elite from the masses – working-class and poor folks. (Learned that gem in graduate school) And we just have to be careful with employing “states’ rights” rhetoric as well, for it’s all tied up in protecting states from federal intervention and regulations – one notorious example, of course, is southern states wanting the “right” to keep owning enslaved people.

    I don’t know what the best balance here is between federal governance and more localized governance. I’d like it if states/counties were able to implement innovative and progressive programs and policies, but I don’t favor the reduction of fed gov’t oversight so that states can squirrel out of such things as environmental regulations.

  4. Nick B. says:

    Right. Speaking to your point, if we think of climate change of a “tragedy of the commons”, we also should consider that the more independent actors there are involved, the greater such tragedies get.

    That said, even though the federal government has great power, we have no laws regulating carbon dioxide emissions. Absent such regulation, we’re all independent actors, making independent choices about how much carbon to emit.

    This means that, with respect to carbon emissions, there are no environmental regulations to “squirrel out of” Even if there were no federal government at all, the situation with respect to carbon dioxide could not get worse. (other environmental issues certainly could, but carbon could not. I regard the carbon issue as by far the most important at this moment in time)

    Given all that, I don’t know what to think. Clearly a complicated issue.

This site is about one total amateur’s half-cocked attempts to do something about Climate Change.
Why is it here?

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