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.

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

brain color colorful cube
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

“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.

Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues

Pew Research has done it again. If we want to take the views of the next generation of voters into consideration as we are making policy, their survey data on the attitudes of teenagers indicates “Generation Z” is looking for a more activist, problem-solving government. One that is more tolerant of gender and ethnic differences. An interesting sidelight is that young people identifying as Republicans are much closer to Democratic positions on these issues than older generations. Does that foretell some moderation of views?

You can read a summary of the research here.

$5 Billion for a Border Wall? Who Cares?

aerial photography of great wall of china
Photo by Colin Schmitt on Pexels.com

Federal budget deficits are set to increase rapidly this year and over the next four years….      

Congressional Budget Office

The partial government shutdown over border wall funding is just one more distraction from the real issues that will worry the next generation of American voters. After the 2017 tax cuts and spending increases, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2019 budget deficit will be $981 billion–$5 billion for the wall is only 0.5% of the deficit and only 0.1% of the total budget.

CBO estimates that if we do nothing different with taxes and expenditures, federal debt will balloon from $21 trillion today to $34 trillion by 2028. At their projected 3.4% interest rate, U.S. tax payers will have to come up with $1.2 trillion in interest each year–money that might better be spent on education or infrastructure. That is the real issue we should be worried about.

Issues like the wall dominate our attention like a barking dog at the door while the house is burning down. If we really cared about the long-term health of the country, Democrats might say, “Sure we’ll give you $5 billion for the wall in exchange for tax and budget legislation that gets our deficits under control.” Having a Congress split between Republicans and Democrats is the best time to get the right balance between spending cuts and tax increases.

What Do 21 Federal Government Shut Downs Mean For the Next Generation?

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We are suffering through the 21st federal government shut down since the administration of Gerald Ford.*  Key agencies of our federal government are shut down for any but essential services. Need a passport? Sorry. Need a permit? Sorry. Need some information? Sorry. Need the trash picked up at a national park? Sorry. And, for essential services, federal workers are being forced to work without pay. How is that not involuntary servitude?

Are there some lessons from these test of wills between presidents and Congress? Commentators focus on short term issues: Who gets the blame? What compromise will reopen these agencies? Will President Trump get something he can call wall funding? Will his supporters be satisfied? If he does, what will the Democrats get in return?

How would these questions change if we focused on the next generation, especially those old enough to follow the news? We might ask: Does shutting down the government over a policy argument strengthen or weaken the institutions we will be passing on to the next generation? Does it strengthen or weaken the next generation’s faith in democracy? Does it discourage them from choosing a career in public service?

Many kids follow in the footsteps of their parents—I doubt the children of furloughed park rangers are hearing what a great career they could make in the park system.

Taking a next generation view changes the issues and the questions in any political discussion. Could it help settle stubborn disputes before they escalate to a crisis? Maybe. Most of our political leaders are parents and grandparents. Some may tone down their demands and rhetoric if we remind them the kids are listening and taking this all in. Second, when parties seem irreconcilable, a well-known negotiation tactic is to bring additional issues to the table. Bringing the interests of the next generation into the discussion automatically does that. Suddenly, there are more things to bargain about and trade off.

The next time we are headed for a shut down, let’s ask everyone, “Have you thought about the next generation?”

 

*All 21 Government Shutdowns in U.S. History

 

Looks Like Social InSecurity To Me….

Our political leaders have known about the looming financial crisis for Social Security for decades, but never get it fixed. With the ratio of workers to retired people getting smaller and smaller as the Baby Boomers retire, it is only going to get worse. Should we just leave the problem for the next generation of voters? The Congressional Budget Office just estimated that the cost of our shortfall will be 4.4% on taxable wages–for the next 75 years (report). Wonder how our kids and grandkids will feel about that?

Being a conditional optimist, I think a window is opening up to fix this because we are entering a period of divided government with the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives. Most members of Congress, most of the time, are motivated to claim credit and avoid blame. The realistic fixes for Social Security–raising payroll taxes, limiting benefits, raising the age of retirement, shifting to another funding mechanism–all involve being blamed for making some people unhappy. The neat thing about divided government is that you can divide the blame. We have a president who wants to do big things and a Congress that can neutralize the blame by dividing it–if not now, when is the next time we can save Social Security?