Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Goverance Failure: A Time of Change

Previously I ended with this question: is the Western state on a downward trend? The multi-year failure to establish even a framework for a balanced budget in the United States may not mean much in ten years. But, in the context of other issues such as the recent bailouts, the Iraq War, and the environment, one wonders: is this budget issue the thread that will unravel the Western state as we know it?

'A Fundamental Disillusionment'
Last year I came across an interesting interview of Carne Ross on Moyers & Company with Bill Moyers. "Government is not the answer. There are some who feel we need to press government for better legislation. But there’s an awful lot of people who feel that that is just impossible given the way that Washington has been co-opted by special interests."

Ross is a former civil servant of 15 years in the British Foreign Office. He was a Middle East expert while working in the United Kingdom's mission to the United Nations. He worked on Security Council resolutions involving both Afghanistan and Iraq prior to the wars. He is perhaps best known for his testimony to the Butler Review where he contradicted the idea that the US and UK had evidence of WMDs in Iraq and no alternative to war. What he has to say about governance is illuminating.

"It’s basically implausible to expect good legislation to come from Washington. And having worked in government very closely and government foreign policy…[and] international institutions like the UN, I simply don’t believe these mechanisms are competent to solve our global problems.

"I was actually in government. I was writing for the foreign secretary. I was writing those claims that we were managing the world; I remember writing them...We have an answer to the problems of world trade, to the global environment, to the poverty in Africa. You know I'd write these very very compellingly written, convincing speeches... explaining how we would do it. And we weren't. We were wrong. I was wrong... The speeches were written in a vacuum. They were just claims. They weren't actually proof of output."

At one point he speaks of 'a fundamental disillusionment' with contemporary Western governance. He is on to something when he uses this term. While his experience arises largely from work involving the wars, the notion of a fundamental disillusionment applies more generally. In my first option3 blog I refer to a Zbigniew Brzezinski quote: "For the first time in history almost all of humanity is politically activism is generating a surge in the quest for cultural respect and economic opportunity."

Ross and Brzezinski, two very differ types of thinkers, are pointing to the same shift in public thinking. The level of economic pressure and environmental uncertainty under which people live and the rise in social activism occurring across the planet both suggest that a real wave of disillusionment is upon us. This disillusionment will no doubt bring about change at some point. The content of this change remains unknown.

Governance in the 21st Century
The creation of even larger, more global institutions that will supposedly rescue us is a fantasy. If a nation cannot solve its problems, a union of nations cannot solve that unions problems. Bigger is not better. It all comes down to what people are actually doing - their actual behavior. As long as we cannot reconcile our individual dysfunctions, our institutions and leaders will continue to exhibit these same dysfunctions in aggregate. To use a simple example: if we as individuals throw away plastic and don't aggressively recycle, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will grow. There is nothing particulary complicated about this idea. No amount of public policy or leadership can change this relationship.

The onus is on all of us. Last year I read an interesting observation by the actor Matt Damon in his interview with Playboy. (I generally avoid quoting actors but Damon authentically works on policy issues as exemplified in his narration of Inside Job for instance.)

"We're at a point where politicians don't really get any benefit from engaging with long-term issues. Instead, it's about the next election cycle. Those guys in the House don't do anything now but run for office. So unless they can find some little thing that zips them up a couple points in the polls, they're not interested. There's a consensus among scientists, though, that we face serious long-term issues. They're saying that unless we engage with those issues, we're genuinely f&*ked."

A Grand Bargain
I began this two part blog with a quote by Otto von Bismarck because he marks the start of the modern administrative state, which I believe is under immense pressure today. Governance failure is a condition where the economic and logistical problems, which the state has traditionally addressed, exceed the capacity of the state. That is one among a few core questions that this generation faces; will the modern Western administrative state exist in 30 years as it did over the last 200 years? The debt ceiling debate and the failure to create a grand bargain suggest that governance failure has begun to emerge.

Furthermore, the leaders we elect probably reflect our own qualities. From a probabilistic perspective, we are not likely to elect 'better' politicians. Perhaps you can argue that people who pursue politics have certain character deflects (i.e. the desire for power and attention) but I argue we are more or less cut from the same cloth. Once we see this idea more clearly we will understand that we can confront their weakness and corruption by confronting the weakness and corruption within ourselves, which ironically will empower us to produce better politicians and confront the less effective ones in power.

The culture and collective psyche need to follow through on the awakening that one hopes is already happening. We need to look deep within ourselves, prioritize certain issues, and focus on making practical choices regarding our financial system and environment. Some issues simply relate more closely to our survival than others. Politicians will follow our lead in the political marketplace.