Saturday, December 27, 2014


If, as I argue in my book “NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism”, the public sector in America is grossly and dangerously under-performing to its capabilities, we need to look in the first place at the federal government as the culprit. The separation of powers has divided that part of our government in three branches: Legislative, Executive and Judicial.

While the performance of the Judicial branch, culminating at the Supreme Court, is certainly worthy of a critical review, I put it aside for a separate commentary at a different time. It is not, in my opinion, where the main problem is. I bestow the title of “unholy trinity” on these three segments of the federal government: The White House, the Congress and the Bureaucracy. Each of these fail miserably in their mission and together they are responsible for the dysfunction inside the Beltway and for America’s incompetence to get its most significant problems solved.

This is not a specific indictment of the Obama White House, the 2014 Congress or the present bureaucracy (although they deserve plenty of blame) but rather an assertion that the existing system of governance is fatally flawed. Peter Drucker concluded that government “has outgrown the structure, the policies and the rules designed for it” with the result that it is “bankrupt, morally as well as financially” and I agree with him. So do some more erudite commentators on American governance, notably Philip K. Howard, Chairman of Common Good, in his recent book “The Rule of Nobody, Saving America from dead laws and broken government” and two senior editors of The Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their 2014 book “The Fourth Revolution, The Global Race to Reinvent the State.”

The White House is one pillar of the unholy trinity that dooms America, because it is hopelessly politicized. The office of the President of the United States should be above the fray, the eyes set firmly on the national interest. Its job is to set the agenda and lead the nation towards completion of its goals and objectives. Instead the White House is engaged in an endless tug of war with the legislative branch about turf wars.

The Congress is the second pillar of the unholy trinity, as it is polarized by a two party system in which the more extreme wings have nearly silenced the moderate center, and because its members are beholden to their campaign contributors rather than their constituents.

The Bureaucracy is the third pillar of the unholy trinity, because it has entrenched behind and keeps adding to an accumulation of rule-making and regulation that is substituting for governance. On one hand, the rule-making continues at full speed, necessitating the addition of ever more federal employees to enforce the rules, and on the other hand the authority of public servants to act with common sense for the common good gets dwindled down to the point of disappearance. Philip Howard in his book reminds us that while the rule-making continues from administration to administration (between 1969 and 1979 the Federal Register nearly quadrupled in length) nothing ever gets rescinded, to the effect that the labyrinth of rules and regulations gets larger and denser all the time and in the end nobody knows anymore what is in there.      “The twenty-seven hundred page Affordable Care Act is now getting implemented with regulations that, so far, are 7 feet high, with more to come” writes Philip Howard in his book. And he continues: “American government is run by millions (he should have said trillions) of words of legal dictates, not by the leaders we elect or the officials who work for them.”

This picture is not very pretty. It is outright disturbing. Who is doing the People’s work? Well, I am afraid that right now the answer is “nobody”. And it shows. None of the important work gets done:
·         The national debt keeps growing without any effort to put a stop to it
·         Social Security and Medicare are largely unfunded for future generations
·         We allow our infrastructure to crumble
·         We let immigration happen rather than managing it in the best interest of the country
·         We are not winning the war on poverty
·         We are not winning the war on drugs
·         We are not winning the war on terror
·         We are powerless in the face of public waste, fraud and abuse
·         We have no national strategic agenda
·         Higher education is not uniformly affordably available
·         Healthcare is not uniformly affordably available
·         We cannot agree on a sensible gun control policy
·         We cannot agree on a sensible defense strategy against the effects of climate change
·         We cannot agree on a common sense tax simplification and reform
·         We allow our mentally ill to roam the streets, homelessly, or hide them from sight in our jails
·         We have allowed inequality to rise to levels from where social mobility has become nearly unattainable.

How does an unholy trinity get broken up? Only by a higher power and in America the only higher power resides in The People. That’s why Micklethwait & Wooldridge foresee (the need for) a Fourth Revolution without giving up on the principle of democracy. They write “The danger to democracy’s health today comes in three subtle forms. The first is that the state will keep expanding, gradually reducing liberty. The second is that the state will surrender ever more power to special interests. And the third danger is that the state will keep making promises it cannot fulfill.” 

Philip Howard advocates a thorough house cleaning and the installation of a Counsel of Citizens to oversee government. He states that “Washington is a house of cards. Any popular movement that stands up to it with an accurate indictment and a credible plan can push it over…” 

Accurate indictments come from all sides, including the books mentioned herein. Who is going to come up with the credible plan?

Sunday, December 7, 2014


December 7, 2014 (73 years after the Day that will live in Infamy)

We are all incredulous spectators to the dismal theatrics playing year after year in Washington D.C. sowing more and more mistrust and disgust in the minds of the American people. But where is the backlash? The public sector of this nation has become an abject failure (in sharp contrast with the private sector, which, time and again, bails out the global economy when the rest of the world sputters or regresses). Do we need any proof?

·         The National Debt just passed the $18 Trillion threshold and is now larger than the size of our economy
·         A comprehensive immigration reform remains illusory
·         Our infrastructure is fragile and at best outdated, at worst crumbling
·         We have not won a war since World War II
o    Not in Korea
o    Not in Vietnam
o    Not in Iraq
o    Not in Afghanistan
o    Not the war on poverty
o    Not the war on drugs
o    Not the war on terror
(We should not start a war that we have no intent of winning or simply cannot win.)
·         We have not funded Social Security and Medicare for future generations
·         We have done nothing about tax reform
·         We have done nothing to turn back the increase in inequality within our society.

This failure of government is not a partisan phenomenon. Control of the White House and the Congress has not determined success or failure in governance. Failure can therefore not be laid at the doorstep of either the Democrats or the Republicans. It defies logic to assume that the failure of the federal government to address the challenges America is facing, is more than marginally the result of incompetence or malign intent of our elected officials and it makes sense, therefore, to look for the cause of the malaise in the system, i.e. the complex of rules and conditions that define American politics of today.

I evaluate the flaws in the American political system in my recently published book “NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism.” Alexis de Tocqueville coined the phrase “American Exceptionalism” because he was in awe of the capacity of the American people to govern their affairs during and following the Revolutionary War, which he termed exceptional. He would be sorely disappointed if he were around today to see how things have developed!

The systematic flaws that I see in our governance model and that I address in detail in my book fall into four categories:
1.       The money influence in politics
2.       The two party system
3.       The election system (frequency, term length and limits, financing, districting and primaries)
4.       The lack of a national strategic agenda

To effect change in any of these four areas will require a herculean effort. After all, change generally only gets embraced when the pain of living with the status quo exceeds the pain inflicted by change. This explains that, while virtually nobody is happy with the status quo, we appear paralyzed to do something about it. The pain caused by the gross under performance of our public sector simply has not crossed the threshold level, but we may be closing in on a tipping point. The 2014 mid-term elections brought about an earthquake size shift in power from the Democrats to the Republicans, but it does not appear to have triggered a Congressional resolve to start fixing problems. The people seem to have no confidence in the political system, given that only a third of eligible voters went to the polling stations.

It would be a mistake, though, to give up on hope for a turn for the better. The American people have an uncanny capacity to step back from the brink before they allow things to get out of hand. And, as Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems impossible until it is done.” We can only hope that it will not take a national disaster to galvanize our politicians into action, but the likelihood is that it will require some shock to the system to get things off dead center. The most benign, democratic and American shock to the system could come from the emergence of a centrist third party. A January 2014 Gallup poll found that 42% of the voting eligible population considers itself “Independent” versus 31% Democrat and 25% Republican. For sure these Independents represent a wide spectrum of political beliefs, some at the extreme ends of the political spectrum, and maybe only half of them would feel at home in a centrist third party, but a centrist third party could easily draw in moderate Democrats and Republicans. In fact, the surest way to establish a viable third party would be for these moderates in the existing two parties to take the initiative to abandon their ideologically entrenched parties, find each other in the middle and create a new party that is dedicated to govern from the center and on the basis of a clear national strategic agenda. Such party would then become an attractive draw for many Independents. It would probably push the Democrats more to the left (where they want to go anyway) and the Republicans more to the right (where the Tea Party is guiding them).

The jolt received from such shock to the arrogance, inertia and complacency of Democratic and Republican Parties might just be enough to break the logjam and get Washington working again for the people of America. It might just be enough to get our politicians to address the other flaws in the system as well. It might just be what the American political system needs to deliver on its promises.