Friday, June 7, 2013

The Blinding Light of the Obvious

At one point in my career, I had a boss who knew that he had to invite discussion among his key staff members of how the company we worked for was doing and where it was heading. But he was doing little more than paying lip-service to business-school conventional wisdom. His favorite response to anyone coming up with an idea for the improvement of the business was: “you strike me with the blinding light of the obvious”, suggesting that he had long considered the idea being brought forward and already incorporated it in his plans for the future. If the idea had any merit it had to have come from him.

It will not surprise anybody that this way of denigration of participative management eventually took the wind out of the sails of all the key employees and the outcome is predictable: the company, which once was an industry innovator and leader, was absorbed by a corporate giant and no longer exists.

In American politics, the blinding light of the obvious plays a very different role. Even the most common sense steps toward improvement of the system are being ignored or tabled. It is as if the blinding light of the obvious never penetrates Capitol Hill or the White House.

How else can we explain that:
1.       At a time of burdensome federal deficits and debt, we continue to subsidize farmers while commodity prices for the main crops they produce are and have been at above average levels;
2.       We artificially pump up the price of corn by continuing to subsidize the use of corn for ethanol production (which, without government support could not compete with oil) for automobile fuel use;
3.       As the only nation in the developed world, we allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise their scary wares directly to the public (with cautionary warnings and all) rather than leave it up to our doctors to decide what’s good for us;
4.       Congress votes to spend money on military hardware (tanks and aircraft) that the military does not even want, at least not in the numbers provided by Congress;
5.       Faced with threatened insolvency of our big entitlement programs Social Security and Medicare, we fail to take the simple steps, outlined by a variety of think tanks, public interest groups, columnists and engaged citizens that can put these programs back on the path of long term sustainability;
6.       Faced with structural budget deficit and a messy, ineffective and metastasized tax code, we can’t have a serious debate about simplification let alone the merits of a consumption tax versus income tax and the use of sin taxes to discourage dangerous behaviors;
7.       We know that our world dominance depends on how well we educate our children and yet we let the cost of higher education, particularly at the top schools, move out of reach for just about all other than the very rich;
8.       We know that our health care system is the most expensive in the world without offering, across the board, best in class results, but we utterly fail to bring cost under control even with the largest legislative effort in decades: we specifically prohibit Medicare to negotiate the cost of pharmaceuticals like the health insurance companies do and we prohibit the free flow of medicine from across the Canadian border.

There is so much the Federal Government, legislative and executive branch, could do to keep America competitive, but the system is paralyzed. Washington is immobilized by interest groups and petty jealousy between Republicans and Democrats.

It is as if the army of politicians inside the Beltway is under control of the mob and scared to death to do anything that the boss will not condone. The boss, of course, in this case is the lobbyist for whatever special interest group rules the roost. It is demoralizing to see how much our legislators are beholden to institutions like the NRA, AARP, NEA, UAW, ACLU, not to speak of the lobbies for major industries like defense, banking, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, financial services and communications. The voting public should be the boss, but its influence has been hijacked by institutions with pockets deep enough to buy the subservience and vote of our representatives.

The net result is that the Nation’s business no longer gets done. The Federal Government can no longer proclaim that it sets the rules of the game by which all constituents have to play and it is incapable of creating optimum conditions for free enterprise and citizens to shape conditions for a brilliant, sustainably competitive future.

One has to be blind, blinded by the lightning strike of the obvious, not to see how even the most common sense solutions to our challenges get stopped in their tracks because of the sway special interest groups hold over our legislators on both sides of the aisle. So, the question becomes: how much longer are we going to tolerate this perverted fa├žade of representative democracy?