Tuesday, August 23, 2016

David Brooks on American Leadership

David Brooks is wondering why, in his words "American leadership fails." Why, he asks, are we not addressing our big problems?

He dismisses corruption as the explanation, and I agree, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. He also dismisses insularity, the common notion that our leaders don't solve our problems because they are too removed from ordinary life to understand them. I also agree with Brooks about this; there may be problems in some communities that our leaders don't understand very well, for example the scandalous way we handle bail bonds. But our elites do understand and have experience of many problems – traffic, housing costs, student loans, credit card debt, drugs, depression, all of which are scourges of upper middle class life – and they aren't solving those, either.

Brooks thinks that people get into politics with a "vocation" to help people,
but over the years, many get swallowed by the system: all the calculating consultants; the ephemeral spin of the media cycle; the endless meetings with supplicants; the constant grind of public criticism; the way campaigning swallows time so they get to spend less time thinking about policy; the way service to a partisan team eclipses service to the cause that brought them into this in the first place.
Certainly many politicians are cynical, and maybe this is a big problem with some political actors. But if what you really want is to be re-elected again and again, solving certain problems would probably help: raising the median income, for example. Or reducing traffic congestion. Plus in America right now the people who want to shut down the government include some of the most committed ideologues.

So I don't think cynicism is the real answer, either.

I think our problem is that 1) our problems are hard to solve, and 2) we don't agree at all on how to go about solving them.

Providing health insurance to all Americans is a fantastically difficult problem, which can be solved only by either doubling the average person's tax bill to pay for a single payer system or creating a mind-boggling bureaucratic maze like Obamacare. Either path requires millions of decisions about what to pay for and how, every one controversial.

Getting the median family income rising again is a problem that no rich nation in the world is solving very well right now. The economic headwinds against this seem to be very strong, and nobody I trust has a clear plan to make things better.

Drug addiction in poor communities is another very tough nut to crack. Traffic is a nightmare; I of course support building more public transit, but this is hugely expensive and every attempt to add new subway or light rail lines is bitterly fought by some coalition of neighbors and other interest groups. Terrorism is a fiendish scourge.

Even a whole Congress full of idealism and vocation would find it hard to solve these or any of our other real problems.

And then there is ideology. One reason we don't "solve our problems" is that we don't agree on what they are. Many American conservatives think the reason people are poor is that they can get by without trying very hard because of welfare, food stamps, disability, etc., and the only way to really help them is to cut off all those subsidies and make them stand on their own. They don't say this because they are cynical or because they have been bought by the Koch brothers; they really believe it.  It is almost impossible to imagine how such a person and I could ever agree on a plan to fight poverty. The same is true for many other issues. Despite what some people seem to think, this is not just a problem of Washington insiders; the whole country is divided on these questions, and the divide is too close for either side to get a real upper hand.

The second part of my explanation depends to some extent on the first. That is, one reason we have these ongoing ideological debates is that we lack clear solutions to our problems. If there were some way to organize public schools that made kids dramatically happier and smarter, it would be adopted around the country regardless of which side dreamed it up. But since the whole field is a muddle, ideology reigns. Sometimes ideologues refuse to believe that the evidence refutes them even when it does, but I think those clear examples are only a small subset of the problems we face.

Here's my answer to Brooks' question: American leadership fails mainly because the problems we have are not susceptible to solutions handed down by leaders, and secondarily because our leaders follow our citizens in being deeply divided in what our problems are and how we should approach them.

1 comment:

Irene Fuerst said...

That's the first Brooks column I've read in a decade. He's a middling thinker and I have no idea why the Times keeps him. I don't believe you can convince anyone, much less a politician, to have a "vocation". Politics is the art of making deals, after all, and trying to keep yourself pure leads to outcomes like gov't shutdowns.

People act on emotions, not logic, and emotions are easily swayed. Pointing out unpleasant realities just leads to rejection by the people you are trying to convince.