What Will Our Grandchildren Wish We Had Done to Change Our Toxic Politics?

How is our generation doing at managing the democracy we inherited? Every year Pew Research, Gallup and others ask representative samples of Americans: “Do you trust the government in Washington to do the right thing.” The percentage answering “always” or “most of the time” sank to 17% in recent years from a high approaching 80% in the late 1950s. Who can blame us for being skeptical? We have–

  • No comprehensive immigration reform.
  • A federal debt that continues to swell.
  • The projected bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare trust funds during most of our lifetimes.
  • Crumbling infrastructure.
  • Four decades of growing income inequality.
  • Persisting ethnic, racial and gender disparities in opportunities.
  • Climate change and the accelerating cost of natural disasters.
  • The ineffective and hugely expensive war on drugs, drug abuse, and opioid deaths.

Who would not agree the federal government should address at least some of these problems—and the sooner the better? Yet they remain unresolved decade after decade.

Ideally, democracy is the way we solve big problems that cannot be handled by the private sector, but the founders of our American Republic, fearful of a government that trampled on people’s rights, purposely made it hard to get big things done without a broad consensus. The founders succeeded in their goal of making it difficult and these days only 3% of the bills introduced in each session of Congress are enacted into law. Many that pass concern trivial matters like the naming of post offices rather than addressing the problems and trends that could seriously affect our children’s future.

It is easy to obstruct bills on the important matters. Committee chairs can refuse to hold hearings, majority party leaders can refuse to let a bill come up for a vote, 41% of Senators can block a vote through the filibuster, party leaders can penalize members of Congress who work with members from the other party, and the President can veto. With all these obstruction points, large majorities can agree that “something must be done” about a looming problem, and yet nothing happens. The only way a system this complicated can function is for people to work together despite political differences.

In the rare times when members of the same party occupy all the obstruction points and have a similar attitude towards an issue, a bill can be enacted without bipartisan cooperation—as happened with the Democrats’ Affordable Care Act and the Republicans’ Tax Cut of 2017. The majority party can brag about getting a big problem solved, but these are temporary victories. Because members of the other party have no stake in the legislation, they begin chipping away at it as soon as they are in the majority.

Bipartisan cooperation is the only way we can address America’s biggest issues under our Constitutional system, but many forces are working against it. We live in an era of negative campaigning when candidates create fear of the other party and deny them credit for their accomplishments. In many cases, special interests have captured elected officials and prevent them from working with members of the opposite party. Members of Congress who do work with the other party are often denied appointments to their preferred committees and may be “primaried” by their own party. Wealthy donors and Super PACs can launch advertising campaigns against candidates that are too bipartisan in their approach. Leaders of parties discourage their members from developing personal relationships with members of the other party, the type of relationships that are helpful in the give and take of legislation. Partisan voters are often caught up in information “echo chambers” that turn them against the idea of compromise with the other party.

Taking a long view that considers the future of our children would challenge all these forces by assuming:

  • Many social and economic problems have the potential to grow and seriously disrupt the lives of our children in the future.
  • Many social and economic problems will not solve themselves without the help of government problem solving and bipartisan compromise.[1]
  • The value of passing on an effective democratic system of government to our kids is more important than the result of any one election or legislative battle.
  • For our system to function, our two political parties must cooperate as well as compete.

Cooperation along with competition may seem strange, but we see it all the time. Baseball teams compete to win a pennant, but also cooperate to make baseball fun and fair so fans keep coming. Businesses compete for customers, but cooperate in trade organizations to strengthen their industry. What would cooperation with competition mean for politics? I believe it would mean:

  • Political parties working together to protect the integrity and perceived fairness of elections.
  • Candidates competing on ideas, values, and record rather than scaring voters about the intentions of the other party.
  • Voters getting out of their echo chambers and electing candidates with proven competence at reaching across the aisle to solve problems.
  • Leaders of parties actively encouraging their members to build relationships with members of the other party in search of bipartisan solutions.
  • Congress considering bills under its “regular order” of committee hearings so both parties can participate in their development.
  • Legislators fashioning bipartisan agreements on big issues, in which both sides can claim a part of the victory.

Could it happen? Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both came to Washington by appealing to values and with big ideas about how to address the nation’s problems. Both worked to build bipartisan majorities to get their ideas passed. Neither was afraid of compromise if it moved the nation’s business forward and both got Congress to enact most of their agenda for the nation. They achieved this record with Congresses controlled by the other party. The fact that it happened within our constitutional system proves it can happen. If our children and grandchildren look back on the present day from the vantage point of 2040 or 2050, what will they wish we had done to repair our toxic politics?

Sources

“The 2018 Long-Term Budget Outlook.” Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office, 2018.

Cannon, Lou. “Ronald Reagan: Campaigns and Elections.” Miller Center.

Desilver, Drew. “For Most U.S. Workers, Real Wages Have Barely Budged in Decades.” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/07/for-most-us-workers-real-wages-have-barely-budged-for-decades/.

“Fourth National Climate Assessment.” Washington, DC, 2018.

From, Al, and Alice McKeon. The New Democrats and the Return to Power.  New York: Palgrave, 2013.

Hetherington, Marc J., and Thomas J. Rudolph. Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis. United States: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

“Infrastructure Report Card.” Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2017.

McCarthy, Justin. “Immigration up Sharply as Most Important U.S. Problem.” Gallup, https://news.gallup.com/poll/244925/immigration-sharply-important-problem.aspx.

Noël, Reginald A. . “Race, Economics, and Social Status.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2018/race-economics-and-social-status/pdf/race-economics-and-social-status.pdf.

Pearl, Betsy. “Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers.” Center for American Progress, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/reports/2018/06/27/452819/ending-war-drugs-numbers/.

Wike, Richard, Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes, and Janell Fetterolf. “Globally, Broad Support for Representative and Direct Democracy.” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewglobal.org/2017/10/16/globally-broad-support-for-representative-and-direct-democracy/?hd&utm_campaign=2017-10-18+PNN&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Pew.

[1]Of course, many minor problems and some major problems will solve themselves without government intervention. If we have good evidence that a major problem is growing and will have a negative impact on our children and grandchildren, the burden of proof that a problem will solve itself should be on those who advocate doing nothing.

A Few Changes…

girl and three boys on staircase
Photo by samer daboul on Pexels.com

This blog is a work in progress! Wanted to let everyone who has been following my blog know about a few changes:

  • Because some have confused “prospective democracy” with “progressive democracy”–which is a different kind of thing–I changed the name of the concept to Longview Democracy and the Internet address is now longview-democracy.blog. I hope that still implies a democracy that looks ahead and takes into consideration the interests of the next generation.
  • The essay that explained the concept–in maybe a little too much abstract detail–has been split and now reappears as 10 Questions About the World Our Children Will Inherit and Six Ways a Longview Democracy Would Be Different. Each is readable in about two or three minutes and, I hope, easily digestible.
  • In future notes, I will be posting a lot more about books, articles, and organizations that bring something interesting to the discussion about how to get our leaders to think about the next generation in their proposals.
  • Will also be putting out questions and opportunities for others to contribute to the blog so we get a diversity of voices on the topic.

That’s all for now. Hope to hear your comments and questions in the future.

 

 

 Code Red for Democracy

Image result for blinking red emergency light

There are at least two great things about modern representative democracies. The first is that they allow for the peaceful transfer of power without anyone getting carted off to prison or shot. The second is that–most of the time–our representatives are able to muddle through to compromise solutions that keep most people in support of the government, even if nobody got everything they were looking for. What other system can make those claims?

For those two reasons alone, representative democracy is certainly worth preserving for the next generation. However, there are times when representative democracies break down, and no compromise can be reached with majority support. Suddenly, the wheels of government grind to a halt. These are times when everyone agrees a problem must be faced immediately, but the government cannot react.

Great Britain just reached that point in its debate about how to withdraw from the European Union—the “Brexit” debate. As of April 2, Parliament has rejected the Prime Minister’s proposal three times and has voted down twelve alternative compromise proposals. Some last minute compromise might still emerge, but it seems that the complexity of the issues, factions and opinions has overwhelmed the capability of the British government and eliminated all feasible compromises. Meanwhile, the possibility of a “no-deal” Brexit on April 12thgrows stronger, threatening economic and political chaos.

In the long-run, the British will have to improve the capabilities of their government if they are to deal with issues as complex as Brexit. That may require a different electoral system, party reorganization, or greater institutional support from their civil service. That is in the long run. But what should those of us who care about the next generation do in the short-run to get through a failure of government decision-making like Brexit? Or—closer to home–a government shutdown in the U.S. over policy differences?

If we want to pass on a functioning representative democracy to the next generation, we will surely want to work on the capabilities of our government to reach compromises on difficult issues that are acceptable to the public. But we also need mechanisms to handle the short-term crises that threaten to destroy citizens’ confidence in representative democracy.

It only takes one time for citizens of a country to lose faith in representative democracy and install a strongman to completely destroy the system. That is the story of Napoleon, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, and countless lesser-known despots over the centuries. Once citizens give up on representative democracy—even temporarily–and turn to a strongman to fix things, that strongman never willingly gives power back to the people. The pattern hasn’t changed since the destruction of the Roman Republic by Julius and Augustus Caesar 2,000 years ago.

So, how can those of us who care about preserving our democracy for the next generation make sure that a temporary breakdown in decision-making does not result in long-term damage? How about a non-profit watchdog organization that can declare a Code Red for democracy? Code Red is an announcement many hospitals use to alert their staff that a fire has been detected. Once a Code Red alert is issued everyone’s attention switches from their normal job to preserving the hospital and keeping patients safe. Each employee has specific, simple tasks to perform, sometimes written out on the back of their name badge. Why not the same for our government?

What would the specific, simple tasks be for a corps of citizens determined to overcome a deadlock among elected officials that threatens the stability of a representative democracy? I believe their basic job would be to use all legal means to make the lives of elected officials on all sides of an issue so miserable that they would strain harder to find compromise. To be effective, pressure would have to be applied to all sides, ideally by the normal allies of each legislator or executive official. Anyone who cheers on a breakdown in government would have to be shamed for the risk they are taking.

The actions that could be undertaken by citizens include, phone calls, emails and letters, personal visits to offices, demonstrations, petitions, cutting off contributions, boycotts of politicians’ key supporters, sending letters and articles to the media, picketing in front of their houses, confronting them in public places, and any other legal means. Politicians who use the breakdown of government as a political weapon are playing with fire. Rather than turn to a strongman to put the fire out, why not issue a Code Red to a citizens corps who can make officials do the job we elected them for—to find majorities on tough issues?

 

What do Americans believe will be the key issues of 2050?

Every year, survey research organizations ask Americans what they believe are the key issues facing the country. This is valuable information for political leaders planning their election campaigns and platforms. To get elected, they always have to address short-term issues on voters’ minds. In a long-term democracy, leaders would also want to know what citizens believe are the key issues facing the country decades into the future.  By anticipating long-term issues, proactive leaders can make small, incremental changes to address them before they become crises.

The Pew Research Center recently completed a study of how Americans are looking at the nation’s future and published their results. They asked over 2,500 representative Americans about conditions they expected for America and what they believed would be the key issues facing the nation in the year 2050. This is a valuable and detailed study–worth the read.

The part I found the most useful were questions about what people believed would improve life for future generations of Americans:

Majorities say increased government spending on health care, education would improve life for future generations

These are the areas on which political leaders can build support because voters see their value for our children and grandchildren. Many of them are also contradictory, which calls out the highest political skill and creativity in our leaders to forge compromises and implement policies that slowly lead to positive change on multiple fronts.

Work on these issues also calls for bipartisanship because neither Republicans nor Democrats see the whole picture of what the nation needs. As other parts of the report make clear, Democrats are much better at recognizing the danger of climate change while Republicans are much better at recognizing the problem of undocumented immigrants. Won’t our grandchildren be better off if we tackle both the problems of super storms from climate change and depressed wages from undocumented immigrants taking jobs in an underground economy? Wouldn’t leaders in a long-term democracy listen to concerns on both sides of the partisan divide and value their perceptions? Some of the long-term members of Congress, secure in their seats, should be leading the way.

Pew’s data on issues is valuable, but I would recommend ignoring questions in which Pew asked people to predict the future in 2050: “Will the U.S. be more or less important in the world?” “Will the gap between the rich and poor grow or get smaller?” Nobody knows the answers to questions like these, but the authors use their survey results to spin a tale of Americans seeing the nation’s decline in many areas. Anyone who has been around for a few decades knows that the national mood swings and that prophesy is a fool’s errand for us poor mortals.

The picture at the top of this note is taken from the Pew article–is it sunrise or sunset in America? Rather than letting our mood swing with the rest, we accomplish more if we take the stance of a conditional optimist: America’s future will be great if we make it so. The issues are there before us, so let’s get to work and make a better world for our children and grandchildren.

Inward or Outward Looking? Our Grandchildren Really Have No Choice

toddler looking through clear glass window
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In the last two years, the U.S. has stepped away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran Nuclear agreement, and the Intermediate-Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. It’s fair to argue about the merits of any of these agreements. It’s fair to argue about whether other nations have been living up to their commitments. It would be hard to deny, though, that these actions represent anything but an inward-looking, go-it-alone approach for the U.S.

Can we continue stepping away from engagement with other nations and still pass on a stable, prosperous world to our kids and grandkids? Can we solve global-sized problems by ourselves?

  • We can’t solve the problem of pollution drifting in from other countries by changing U.S. laws.
  • We can’t have military security without exchanging intelligence with other friendly nations.
  • We can’t put a lid on foreign terrorism without going to its source.
  • We can’t calm the waves of refugees breaking on our shores unless we join with others to help them stabilize their home countries.
  • We can’t have international trade without rules of the game listed in international agreements.
  • Our ships can’t safely navigate the high seas without international maritime agreements about shipping lanes.
  • Our planes can’t fly safely without international agreements on airport security and air traffic control.
  • We can’t prevent collisions of satellites in space without international agreements allocating orbits.
  • We can’t protect patent holders from the theft of their intellectual property without international agreements.
  • We can’t have an operating Internet without agreeing to international technical standards.
  • We can’t shut down dangerous genetic engineering experiments without international agreements.
  • We can’t shut down international epidemics without international cooperation.
  • We can’t control international crime without the help of other nations.
  • We can’t solve the problem of greenhouse gases heating up the atmosphere by ourselves when 80% of the gases are generated in other nations.
  • We can’t stop nuclear weapons from spreading without arms control agreements.

What can we do? We can make sure the U.S. has people on the job, working on these issues with other nations.  Normally, you would expect the U.S. Department of State to be staffed up and working on them. Sadly, if you poke around its “Alphabetical List of Bureaus and Offices” to find out who is in charge of these areas, you will find many top positions with no names listed or with just “acting” employees. Somewhere between staff turnover, a lack of appointments, or a lack of Senate confirmations, we are not getting responsible, talented people in place to provide leadership.

The next generation will face many issues bigger than what one nation, or even what a small group of nations can handle. We are actors on the world stage whether we like it or not. If the U.S. has made some bad agreements in the past, or other nations have not fulfilled their obligations, it is not realistic to simply walk away and hope we can isolate ourselves. The answer is to become more effective at making agreements and holding other nations accountable to them. If we want to pass on a stable, prosperous world to the next generation, our generation has to put the right people in place and give them the resources to make it happen.

How Can We Curb the Accelerating Costs of America’s Natural Disasters?

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Revised: 3/1/19

On November 19, 2016, my hometown newspaper in Western North Carolina reported that wildfires were ripping through 46,000 acres of the Nantahala National Forest. Natural disasters leave wounds—physical and mental—death and financial loss. Many neighbors in Western North Carolina and Tennessee lost homes, businesses, and the lives of relatives in the fires of 2016. Some victims take years to recover, some never do.

We all hope for safe communities, but graphic images of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters have become familiar in recent years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the scorekeeper for our nation’s natural disasters and they do it in billions of dollars. In 2018, we suffered 14 natural disasters in which physical damage and the interruption of businesses totaled $91 billion. Surprisingly, 2018 was only the fourth most expensive year for natural disasters.  The cost of natural disasters in 2017 was over $300 billion. That’s twice the $149 billion direct costs of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Year by year, the cost and frequency of natural disasters vary a lot, but the five year averages have shown crazy growth. Back in the 1990s, the five year average yearly cost of disasters was pretty stable at around $20 billion in the U.S. After 2001, the five year average cost more than doubled, fluctuating between $50 billion and $60 billion. Then around 2015, the five year average started climbing again to $100 billion. All of these figures are adjusted for inflation, so something real is going on here.

What will the annual figures, the suffering, and the loss of life be when the kids born this year become adults? We have already doubled the long-term average. Will it double again to $200 billion with spikes of $400 billion? What will it be like to live in a country that has the equivalent loss of a 9/11 attack–or two–every year?

As with most long-term issues, we can reverse this trend with innovation and political will if we act now. We do not have to continue rebuilding in floodplains, we can restore wetlands that protect us from flooding, we can enact building codes that require elevating homes in flood prone areas, harden them against hurricane force winds and earthquakes, make them more fire resistant in fire prone areas, and manage the brush that spreads wildfires. We can do better.

A recent study by the National Institute of Building Sciences concluded that $1 spent on these types of mitigation efforts, when targeted to the right areas, typically results in $4 to $6 of savings. Pretty good odds. Congress made a small down payment on prevention by passing the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, which allows diversion of some funds from disaster recovery to disaster prevention, but the amounts spent so far are too small to get the job done.

The federal government has allocated a little less than $1 billion per year to minimizing losses from disasters betwee­­­n 2007 and 2016, or about 1% of their annual cost. My analysis of what it would take in federal funding to seriously turn around the costs of natural disasters through mitigation efforts is an additional $2.5 to $5 billion per year. The low figure is based on the annual costs of natural disasters increasing by the same absolute amount as it has in the last 17 years–$4.7 billion per year–and the higher figure is based on the average cost of disasters growing by the same annual rate of 10%. The right figure is probably somewhere in between, but could be higher if global warming is truly driving the increasing costs of natural disasters.

In just a few years of consistent investment in mitigation, savings on disaster relief would more than pay the annual cost of mitigation. The future is always hidden in a cloud of “what ifs?” and nothing is more unpredictable than the annual costs of natural disasters–but the trend line is unmistakable. The federal government ends up paying out many billions of dollars each year responding to disasters. Would the initial expenditures for an effective mitigation program be too much of a burden to the current generation of taxpayers? The high estimate of what we need to spend is about the same as we spend on two days of Social Security payments or three days of what we spend on the Department of Defense Budget. Investing more in mitigation efforts rather than letting the costs of natural disasters run out of control is smart for the current generation of taxpayers and the responsible thing to do on behalf of the next generation.

Details of my analysis are available on request by emailing me at tfehsen1@jhu.edu.

Sources

Carter, Shan, and Amanda Cox. “One 9/11 Tally: $ 3.3 Trillion.” The New York Times, September 8 2011.

“Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018.” FEMA, https://www.fema.gov/disaster-recovery-reform-act-2018.

National Institute of Building Sciences Multihazard Mitigation Council. “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report.” Washington, DC: National Institute of Building Sciences, 2017.

Sack, Kevin, and John Schwartz. “As Storms Keep Coming, Fema Spends Billions in ‘Cycle’ of Damage and Repair.” The New York Times, October 8, 2018 2018.

Stauffer, Anne, Justin Theal, and Colin Foard. “Natural Disaster Mitigation Spending Not Comprehensively Tracked.” Pew, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2018/09/natural-disaster-mitigation-spending–not-comprehensively-tracked.

“U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters.” NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/.

 

Is “Multi-Solving” the Key to Solving Long Term Issues?

brain color colorful cube
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“How can you get politicians to enact policies that solve long-term issues when they can’t even pass an annual budget?”

“How can you get voters to care if they are focused on the latest tweet-storms out of Washington?”

Friends asked me questions like these when I started my blog–I would shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know yet, but I am going to try and find out.”

Beth Sawin of the Climate Interactive company may have provided a partial answer to these questions. She has been struggling with them in relation to climate change. After an unsuccessful climate conference in Copenhagen, she realized that all feasible political action is limited by the need of leaders to win the next election. They cannot win if they enact policies in which all costs are carried by current voters and the benefits will only be gained by future voters. Her solution is “multi-solving.”

Multi-solving involves breaking through the walls we build around our problems to find interconnections with other people’s problems. It means that we have to talk to people in different disciplines, departments or lines of work and ask, “How can solving my problem help solve yours?”

Her application of multi-solving was connecting solutions for climate change to other fields, primarily problems of public health and economics. She found tremendous, quantifiable health and economic benefits from measures that would also limit global warming.

Multi-solving sounds like a strategy that could have broad application for creating policies that would please voters and still make progress on our long-term issues. It is probably an approach that seasoned politicians use intuitively if they want to create a long-term legacy. I recommend spending 17 minutes to watch Beth Sawin’s presentation.