Thursday, December 6, 2012

Five myths we can do without


By Bill Kraus

The Lee Dreyfus dictum--never underestimate the peoples’ intelligence or overestimate their information--while true, doesn’t specifically warn against the Mythology Problem Delusion. I suppose it is an offshoot of the Information Problem. If one doesn’t know better, one is susceptible to myths, old wives tales, conspiracy theories, and worse.

Five myths come to mind.

Government can and should be run like a business.

Business works as well as it does in no small measure because it is organized on the totalitarian model. Like a dictatorship. Okay, a benign dictatorship. But nonetheless if the boss likes an idea, that idea is likely to prevail. Government is organized on the democratic model where all the participants have more or less equal power and can use that power to advance their own ideas, adopt the ideas of others, or block any and all ideas. The excellent new movie about and called Lincoln is a basic lesson in how democracy works if, as, and when it works. As a wise mother and political activist puts it, “Getting what you want in politics is accomplished by a combination of threats and bribes, not unlike the techniques employed in raising children.”

The other not insignificant difference between governing and managing is that government is conducted in public. As I told a company CEO onetime who was spouting the government-can-be-run-like-a-business nonsense, “Let me know if you plan to invite the press to your board of directors meetings, and we’ll talk.”

Governments should have a rainy day fund.

It rains every day in the public sector. The demands on the government’s largesse are endless, unmeetable, and compelling.

The tax system is full of loopholes.

The first thing one learns in the government is that the way to implement public policy decisions is to build economic incentives into them. These are called loopholes. They work. Telling citizens to own their own homes is nice rhetoric. Making mortgage payments tax deductible impels citizens toward home ownership. Ditto charitable giving. Ditto drilling for oil in dangerous places. Ditto a lot of things we admire and want more of right down to buying life insurance.

Thinking of loopholes as incentives makes one think better of them.

The press is too powerful.

The press used to have a lot of power. Those of us who spent time and effort trying to elect Republicans to high office in Wisconsin knew that getting this done in this state depended on getting the editorial endorsement of the Milwaukee Journal, affectionately referred to as "Pravda by Lake Michigan." That paper’s power diminished when it became a regional paper. Then it quit endorsing altogether. My own opinion is that the press is no longer powerful enough or read widely enough, which harkens back to the Dreyfus dictum about ignorance.

We have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

We have always had a government of the elite, by the bureaucracy, and for the people. Like in baseball, the people batted .333, and it worked.

The current problem is that the elite have outsourced their assignments to surrogates and surrogate organizations and money. Until and unless the real leaders reassume their role of “of,” the formula--and democracy itself--won’t work as designed.

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