Monday, December 19, 2016

Drag Racing the Prius: Government, Business, and the Dangers of Bad Metaphors

I think I'll take my Prius drag racing.

It makes perfect sense, right? After all, a Prius is just like those cars you see tearing down the track at drag races. It has four wheels, each with an inflated rubber tire. It has an engine powered by oil-based fuel. It's got a seat for a driver, with a steering wheel. It's got a transmission system, and a bunch of electrical support stuff. I mean, they're practically the same thing.

Of course, this is crazy. A Prius, despite some superficial similarities, is not a drag racer. Attempting to run mine on a drag strip is likely to fail, and cause a fair amount of damage in the process. A drag racer is built for speed. A Prius (unless you heavily modify it!) is built for gas mileage.

Along similar lines, why do so many people insist on arguing that "government should be run like a business"?

This is a popular metaphor, resurrected recently as a rationale for supporting Donald Trump for President. If the government should be run like a business, who better to run it than a successful businessman who is busy stocking his cabinet with other successful businessmen?

(I will leave aside the question of whether Trump is actually successful or not. For my purposes, whether he's a good businessman or a bad one is irrelevant.)

Businesses and governments do share some things superficially in common. What most people are thinking of when they use this comparison is that both have budgets. Businesses have revenues and expenses, and so do governments. Government at the national level tends to run a fairly serious deficit, which is seen in many conservative quarters as a bad thing. Businesses, or so it is claimed, can't run structural deficits for long or they go out of business. Hence, the argument that governments should be run like businesses.

(It should be noted that lots of other things have budgets, too - churches, households, stray pet shelters, homeowners associations. No one ever says we should run government like a church.)

There are a few other points of similarity - businesses and governments both have rules and authority structures, both are to some degree hierarchical, and both are made up of people who fill particular roles within the larger organization. These are minor matters, a little like saying that a Prius and a drag racer both have spark plugs.

The fact that "business" and "government" both belong to the broader category called "human organization" tells you very little about how to run the latter. The differences between them are far more important than the similarities. And like the comparison between Prius and drag racer, what is most important is the purpose for which each was built.

A business is an organization designed to produce some product or service for the wider world, usually (though not always) at a profit. A business creates what it creates. It is primarily concerned with two groups of people: the owners (who control the business, and in whose interest it presumably operates) and the customers. A business can define its own customer base, to a substantial degree, and doesn't need to concern itself with anybody else in society. Businesses don't even have to be all that concerned about their employees, except as these are necessary to produce the product or service.

Governments look nothing like this. They are not meant to operate at a profit, and those that do are generally regarded as corrupt and illegitimate. Governments do not produce individual goods or services, but provide public goods to a broad group of people known as citizens. Except at the margins, governments have very little ability to define who they serve, and governments that decide to serve only one segment of the population usually find themselves losing legitimacy. Legitimate governments can't pick their "customer base".

We can perhaps lay this confusion at the feet of Calvin Coolidge, who famously said, "the chief business of the American people is business." By this he meant that most individual Americans are chiefly concerned with making a living for themselves. In this, he was at least partially right.

But the chief purpose of the government is not to be a business, but to provide a safe, secure, and fair environment in which everybody can pursue their own individual business. If businesses are like sports teams competing, government is like the referee enforcing the rules of the game.

Ultimately, the purpose of a business is to advance the interests of its owners, usually a small group of people. The purpose of a government is to advance the interests of everybody. A business is partial to itself. A good government is impartial towards all.

In this sense, being a successful businessman makes one little more qualified to run a government than being a successful gymnast, or race car driver, or neurosurgeon. These are all completely different human endeavors requiring different skill sets. They may overlap in some ways (success everywhere requires determined effort and the ability to learn and adapt, for example), but the goals and purposes of each are radically different.

So let's stop talking about how government should be run like a business. I don't want my government run like a business (Verizon customer service, anyone?) I want it run like a government, with the interests of all of its people in mind.

Friday, December 16, 2016

"Faithless Electors" - the Legitimacy Dilemma

There is a lot of talk in Democratic/leftist/anti-Trump circles about the prospects of "faithless electors" turning the tide and keeping Donald Trump out of the White House. It appears to be technically true, as a matter of process, that the members of the Electoral College can in fact vote for whomever they wish, and that their votes (and ONLY their votes) determine who the next President of the United States will be. It is not clear, under the various and sundry state election laws, what the consequence would be of an elector voting for someone other than the candidate to whom the state's election pledged them; however, even if there are such consequences it's not clear that such laws can prevent electors from doing so, or overturn their votes if they do.

A lot of the folks pushing this idea are focused on the outcome. They know what they want: they want somebody (anybody, really) other than Donald Trump to be President. In my view, however, process is far more important than outcome, because outcomes are always temporary - processes tend to stick with us for a very long time.

This is why the Electoral College movement concerns me. A lot of folks have called for the end of the Electoral College entirely, and maybe that's a good idea. But that would take a Constitutional amendment - not at all an easy thing to do - and more importantly, we would have to agree on what process of election would replace it.

At this time in our nation's history, it's not at all clear to me that we have the ability to have that conversation. We are so focused on the outcomes of our own tribes that we have lost the sense that we all live under a common set of rules, and that those shared rules and norms matter. Not long ago, telling the truth mattered for political leaders. Yes, there was always spin and shading. But now we have an elected leader who shows a reckless disregard for the truth. He doesn't care. That's a norm lost, sometime we used to agree on that's gone now.

So if there are enough Faithless Electors to turn the tide and prevent Donald Trump from assuming the Presidency, then what? The rules may be crazy, but they're the only rules we have. If those electors throw the race into the House, does the House just turn around and elect Trump anyway? And if someone else is chosen, will that person be seen as legitimate, either by the rest of the government or by the American people generally?

To be fair, I think the legitimacy argument can be overblown, for two reasons. First, because we've become so tribal and outcome-focused, there's a fair amount of delegitimizing whoever's in the White House anyway. George W Bush and Barack Obama have both faced portions of the population who believed strongly that they were illegitimate occupants of the Oval Office. Both managed to execute the duties of the office anyway. Because Hillary won the popular vote, there are folks who are already inclined to see Trump's victory as illegitimate. That goes with the territory.

Second, we tend to have a bias towards imbuing whatever happens with a measure of legitimacy, largely because the consequences otherwise are potentially large and potentially disastrous. Yes, rules can be imperfect; yes, systems can be weak. The preponderance of evidence is that George W. Bush didn't really win Florida (and therefore, the White House) in 2000, but once we settled the legal issues surrounding recounts we never really looked back. This is true because nobody could really envision any alternatives.

This is both the danger of messing with the Electoral College, and the defense against it. If we upset the apple cart, we risk creating enormous uncertainty. As deadlocked as the government is (mostly in Congress), we could risk further crippling it by throwing the executive branch into chaos, with no clear leadership. And we risk opening a massive can of worms that I don't think we, as a nation, are ready to deal with.

So for those participating in the Faithless Elector movement - be careful what you wish for. There may be worse outcomes, either now or down the road, to a President Trump.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Karate and Life: Know Yourself

Gichin Funakoshi's fourth Precept is this:
First know yourself before attempting to know others.
Unlike the first three, this one doesn't have an obvious connection to the martial arts. What does "knowing yourself" have to do with karate?

People who have studied the martial arts - or any other demanding discipline - seriously for a time know, however, that any discipline in a journey of self-knowledge. In the case of karate, the more I study and practice the more I learn about myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. I learn what I can and can't do, what I am and am not prepared to do, what my strengths and limitations are, and how far I can push the boundaries of all of these things.

The injunction to know yourself before trying to know others starts with the physical. If I don't understand my own body and its movements, someone else's will likely baffle me. That's why people with expertise in any area, from sports to martial arts to music, can watch someone else perform and "see" things that the rest of us can't see.

But this pretty quickly goes beyond the physical. If I haven't made the effort to understand myself, to get "inside" something and try to make it work for me, how can I pass judgment on someone else? And if I haven't really wrestled with myself in a given area, to test my ideas and thoughts and values, how then can I try to do so with someone else?

At its heart, this is a call for humility. It is entirely consistent with the parable about specks and logs (Matthew 7), and any number of other teachings about the need to understand ourselves rather than pass judgment on others.

In this day and age, humility is not much commended as a virtue anymore. We are quick to pass judgment on others, to rain down our wrath and indignation on things we don't understand. Trying to understand, rather than to judge, is seen as weak. For a recent example, check out this story about reactions to a staff member at Ohio State who suggested (via Twitter) that a search for compassion and understanding were appropriate towards the perpetrator of violence.

In today's world, humility takes courage, because it means standing up to the mobs baying for blood. But as CS Lewis reminded us, courage is really the form of every virtue at the point where it is tested. Today we humility is facing terrible and difficult tests. Will you try to know yourself first?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rethinking the Morality of Our Economy

As we continue examination of last month's surprising election results and the transition to a new Presidency, there is a lot of writing and thinking about the role of the economy and different people's places in it. Many have pointed out the strong rural-urban divide (see this Brookings Institution piece, for example) and the apparent chasm between well-educated city-dwellers (who voted overwhelmingly for Clinton) and less well-educated rural folks (who largely voted for Trump). At least some of what fueled Trump's victory seems to have been a desire for jobs that once existed but are now gone, along with a perceived decline in living standards.

A lot of our national conversation about jobs and the economy rests less on economics than on a surprisingly deep and unexamined bed of moral assumptions. Consider, for example, this article:
Driverless 18-Wheelers Coming to Ohio
In many ways, this is a familiar story of automation displacing human labor. We have seen the same thing in heavy manufacturing, in coal mining, in the steel industry, in farming. Plants, factories, and farms than a few decades ago employed thousands now employ a few hundred - and are more productive than they used to be. Nearly 20 years ago Paul Kennedy identified robotic automation as one of the major forces that would reshape the world in Preparing for the 21st Century.

Every time we go through another cycle, there is always concern for the workers "left behind". There have generally been two answers to this problem. The first is "benign neglect" - let folks figure it out on their own, often by moving to places where there are more jobs, and/or sinking into poverty and despair. The second has been some variation of job training/education, to "retool" workers so that they are qualified to do jobs that haven't yet been eliminated by automation.

Deep underneath all of this is a root assumption far more moral than economic. If we start asking "why", we get a chain of logic that looks something like this:

Why do workers need to retrain? So they can get new jobs that pay well.
Why do they need jobs that pay well? So they can enjoy a good standard of living.
Why is a job necessary for a good standard of living? Because that's the way we distribute resources in our economy.
Why do we distribute resources according to the use of labor? .....

This is where we hit the moral bedrock - which automation technology may eventually cause us to reexamine. We assume that wealth must be attached to labor because ... well, because wealth distributed any other way would reward laziness. Why give people money they haven't earned? We can't imagine doing it any other way.

This notion that wealth or resources must be earned is fundamentally moral. It is based on a statement of what "should" be. It is entirely possible to distribute resources in other ways and on other bases, as the "basic income" movement argues. Many objections to that argument amount to moral repugnance rather than reasoned debate, which is why I suspect it hasn't gotten very far.

It should be pointed out that, even in our present labor-market-driven system, we are not purists about "earning". Children under the age of 14 or 16 or 18, for example, don't "earn" their keep by producing, yet few people would argue that they should. That was not true 150 years ago; we once had a system in which child labor was not only allowed but expected, and children as young as 5 or 6 were held to the same moral standards of earning as adults. We do not lack for alternative ideas, we just haven't thought about them much.

So why are driverless trucks important? Because the trend lines here are clear, even if their precise measure is difficult. We will continue to find more efficient ways to produce goods and services with less and less labor input. At the same time, our population isn't declining - it's growing, if slowly (speaking here solely of the United States - in some places, like Russia and Japan, it's shrinking). At the very least, we can expect population to level off and remain steady, which in the US means ~320 million or more people.

So what happens when those curves cross - when automation means that there simply aren't enough productive jobs for all of our workforce? Some "products", like art or music, can be produced in more or less infinite quantities, but the current labor market in those areas means that the more musicians or artists there are, the poorer all of them will be as they compete for a finite market.

The economic challenges that have surfaced through the US election are real. Promises to turn back the clock and "bring jobs back" aren't going to solve them - the trend lines aren't going back. Youngstown, Ohio is never again going to have thousands of steelworkers, no matter what kind of deals President Trump thinks he can cut.

Eventually, these curves will meet and we will be forced to rethink our most basic assumptions. We will have to stop defining people's value, in economic terms, on the basis of what they produce economically, because there will not be enough work for everyone to be productive. And that will require a moral shift, so that we cease to put "earning" at the center of our moral universe. That won't be easy, and maybe we won't manage it at all (although the alternatives are far more dystopian). But we need to start thinking about this now.