Thursday, January 20, 2011

As Public Policy Fixes Are Impossible, Focus on Individual Solutions

Divisive politics and the Tyranny of the Majority guarantee policy fixes will fail or be symbolic only.

Though I am drawn to public policy questions, I always regret proposing any policy fixes. Why? For a number of reasons:

1. It's safer and easier to be a critic or doomsdayer. Finding flaws in policies addressing a diverse populace, be it a town, city, state or nation, is like shooting fish in a barrel: it's incredibly easy to shred any policy proposal. The hard part is proposing a coherent, pragmatic one.

It's also easy to say that the status quo is unsustainable, i.e. stating the obvious.

2. Pragmatism does not inspire the partisan passion that drives politics. The hate mail I receive often includes some line like "you must be a Republican"--the most hateful, vile slam the invective-spewing AC (anonymous coward) can conjure.

Or it might be "you Big Government liberals"--once again, a party-hewed cliche is the most searing condemnation the AC can find to express his venomous rage.

No wonder reasonable voices are soon shouted down, or they leave the room; the partisans demand the sort of ideological purity that simply doesn't work in the real world, but which inspires fanatic devotion, fund-raising, etc.--the building blocks of partisan political success.

Politics has always been a mean-spirited, ugly business; now, even a whiff of politically charged policy debate will draw the ire of those seeking an outlet for their anger and frustration.

A town-hall meeting might offer up an opportunity for spewing the pressurized anger, and if not, then some blogger or writer will stand duty as the straw man/woman to demonize.

Those of you who have attended these kinds of shout-fests know how the pragmatists feel; they slip out in dismay and disgust. Who needs that kind of abuse?

3. There is a great confusion between limited government that pragmatically serves its citizenry and a government that serves its cartel/political elites. Many Libertarians take the view that government is the root of all evil, and eliminating all government is the key solution.

Without making a fetish of the Constitution, it seems self-evident that the Founding Fathers engaged in a vigorous debate on just this issue, and chose a limited Central State which ceded most government issues to the states. In this structure, there was an implicit option of citizenry to "vote with their feet" (the non-enslaved citizenry, that is) if any one state became overly oppressive.

Over the past century, the Central State has evolved into the Savior State and Global Empire, a massive "mission creep" expansion which rather clearly has centralized powers to a degree which threatens state and individual liberty.

That said, to claim that we would do just fine without any Central State at all seems impractical.

It seems self-evident to me that the Federal government has appropriated too much power and too much of the national income, and that it did so in large part to reward its fiefdoms and private-sector partners, the corporate cartels.

We seem to have forgotten the distinction between a kleptocratic State which serves its Elites, and one which makes modest efforts to stabilize opportunities for the well-being of its citizens.

A Central State might provide some basic public health services--minimizing epidemics is generally conceded to be a good idea, for example--and provide for the common defense.

Somehow the first has morphed into paying a sickcare cartel $120,000 a week for hospital care for every citizen over the age of 65, and "defense" has transmogrified into a concern with "protecting our interests" literally everywhere on the planet.

Both of these missions--unlimited medical care provided for profit, and a global Empire of embassies, bases, intelligence networks, and so on--are fiscally unsustainable.

4. There are severe limits on policy fixes. People respond to incentives and disincentives, and if they are getting something for free, then they will resist any withdrawal of the entitlements.

Politicians understand this dynamic, and thus entitlements have become "untouchable" as their constituencies have grown into the tens of millions.

As a result, our democracy is facing the danger posed by the Tyranny of the Majority, in which 51% of voters who receive State largesse can extract more taxes from the minority, or demand more State borrowing--whatever it takes to keep the swag flowing.

Of course the cartels play the same game: they really don't care how the State comes up with the funding for their profit centers, as long as it isn't from their pockets.

With voters demanding entitlements and cartels ponying up huge campaign donations to make sure their profit centers have unlimited access to State swag, then you have a recipe for fiscal implosion and/or collapse of the heavily-taxed minority.

The standard "policy fix" of the past 100 years is to vacuum up more private-sector income via taxes and spend it on implementing the policy. Now we have reached a point in history in which policy fixes must consume radically less money and resources.

Policy fixes which reduce entitlements, profit flows and freebies are insanely unpopular and thus politically impossible. So the recipients of the swag, voters, fiefdoms and cartel Elites alike, in effect choose systemic collapse over cuts.

Another limit is psychological. It is a difficult truth that the more dependent one becomes on free money (or equivalent), the less self-reliant one becomes. Thinking for oneself, taking responsibility for oneself, making the hard choices, taking risks--all these essential skills atrophy in dependence.

Just as destructively, the dependent person reacts with tremendous fear and then anger if their lifeline is threatened; having grown dependent, they have lost their self-confidence. They fear they will not survive the weaning. So they lash out at the agents of change, and devote every fiber of strength to beating back the threat to their dependency.

In this way, they seal their fate as the system, increasingly brittle and top-heavy, eventually implodes under the weight of all who have become dependent on the Central State--citizens, State fiefdoms and private enterprises.

This obsession with "what I was promised, what I deserve, it's my right," etc., fosters a self-absorbed culture of greed in which the focus is entirely on what the individual can extract, never mind the consequences on the larger society.

The necessity and nature of self-reliance is the heart of my book Survival+.

5. Pluralism manages slow, gradual changes which threaten no major constituency. The two-party system evolved to offer a pluralistic path to gradual change via compromises and "baby steps."

As a result, it is completely incapable of responding to crises which demand prompt, radical adaptations and fast evolutions of the "punctuated equilibrium" kind.

For example, pluralism's "solution" to a failed healthcare system is a 1,300-page giveaway to all the key interests, a complex bureaucratic "fix" that offered only incremental, and ineffectual, modifications around the edges of a failed healthcare system.

6. Since policy fixes are doomed for the above reasons, then the solutions must be individually instigated and crafted. The constituency for reducing Central State powers or income is small and weak, where the constituency for enlarging State power and tax revenues has reached a critical mass--most citizens feel they have much to gain from the Status Quo entitlements, and the fiefdoms and cartels which feed off the State will fight tooth and nail to keep the funding spigots open, regardless of the costs to the society at large.

Individuals and households adapt when they have no other choice. It wasn't that 90% of the populace of Rome was slaughtered or died when Rome fell; people drifted away as the bread and circuses vanished. They fashioned a life elsewhere, undoubtedly a harder one, but a life nonetheless.

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire continues to offer if not a template, then certainly a rough recipe for the devolution of the American Central State and global reach. I have covered this topic many times in the past few years:

Complacency and The Will To Radical Reform (February 12, 2009)

Enmeshed in classical history, all he can do is lapse into vague sermonizing, telling the Romans, as many a moralist had told them throughout the centuries, that they must undergo an ethical regeneration and return to the simplicities and self-sacrifices of their ancestors.

There was no room at all, in these ways of thinking, for the novel, apocalyptic situation which had now arisen, a situation which needed solutions as radical as itself. His whole attitude is a complacent acceptance of things as they are, without a single new idea.

This acceptance was accompanied by greatly excessive optimism about the present and future. Even when the end was only sixty years away, and the Empire was already crumbling fast, Rutilius continued to address the spirit of Rome with the same supreme assurance.

This blind adherence to the ideas of the past ranks high among the principal causes of the downfall of Rome. If you were sufficiently lulled by these traditional fictions, there was no call to take any practical first-aid measures at all.

As author/blogger Michael Panzner has noted, the Status Quo is responding to the Long Emergency as if it is merely cyclical rather than structural. This is to be expected, of course, as recognition of the structural nature of our financial difficulties would require a revolution of awareness.

Collapse of Complex Systems III: Incremental Change and Collapse (February 25, 2009)

The U.S. Economy: Increasingly Marginal Returns (January 15, 2009)

At times I am seduced by the hope that pragmatic policy adaptations are possible, and potentially positive; but then the response always convinces me that the Status Quo is terminally in the grip of the Tyranny of the Majority, the hyper-wealthy cartel Elites, and the State fiefdoms which have grown powerful feeding off the income streams of the Central State. Those who depend on the Central State demand funding without reduction or interruption, and they react with overwhelming hostility to pragmatic fixes, guaranteeing that the only choice in the future will be binary: either the Status Quo continues on unchanged, or it collapses.

Given that choice, I think we had best prepare for devolution and collapse. Make your own plans, strengthen your own communities and hone your own skills, because we as a nation are choosing implosion and collapse over pragmatism, evolution and adaptation.

By the time there is no other choice but radical adaptation, there won't be time or resources to effect that systemic change.

So the angry citizens demand a steady flow of "good news" and endless checks, until the checks stop coming or the check won't buy a loaf of bread. Or they demand "change" which doesn't effect their share of the swag--let the costs of "change" fall anywhere else but me.

The citizens of Rome demanded bread and circuses, too, until the city fell. No one was left to chronicle their dazed response.

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