As Americans, we collectively spend 1000 years filling out paperwork every year. We collectively spend 60 million hours a year on hold. Was bureaucracy this complicated in the France of Louis XV? In the Austria-Hungary of Franz Josef? In Gorbachev’s USSR?
Since 1935, every American is assigned a number at birth and over the course of a lifetime acquires dozens of other numbers. These numbers may or may not help us through the maze of bureaucracy. But the ultimate factor that helps or hinders us is the temperament of whatever representative we’re lucky enough to face. Milton Friedman once declared ‘Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.’ But that funny but slightly sexist wordplay demeans both women and the power of bureaucrats. A better one would be “I am your Toshiba customer service representative, look on my works, ye mighty and despair!” For in the hands of such a representative lies the fate of the four years of otherwise irretrievable files on your virus-infected computer that comprise the current period of your life.
Yet even with the amount of statistics that comprise our lifetime, the statistics we can control speak for themselves all too thinly. Between 1968 and 2004, there had not been a US Presidential election for which the turnout of eligible voters exceeded 60%. There has not been a 40% turnout for a midterm congressional election since 1970. Most politicians interpret the votes of a quarter of the US population to be an overwhelming mandate. The Bush Administration interpreted the votes of a fifth of Americans to be such a mandate. In the Obama era, it’s now routine to see polls that put American’s faith in Congress as less than 10%. This would be a stunning figure had similar numbers not been routine during the Clinton and Bush years as well.
Many pundits would have us believe that the biggest problem is special interests. But the very term ‘special interest’ sounds like an anachronism of the late 20th century. ‘Special interests’ are so woven into the fabric of Washington lawmaking that lawmakers are more reliable representatives of the interest groups than their constituents. They reliably provide millions of dollars for re-election efforts: AT&T alone has given $55 million of campaign contributions since 1989. And if loyal congressmen are defeated, they’re paid a couple million to lobby for precisely the interests that bankrolled their campaigns. Most of their staff members alternate every few years between serving in their staff or serving as lobbyists for the interests. What was once termed ‘special interests’ are the regular interests of congress. The American People are the special interests.
I’ve lived the better part of the last decade in DC, so I have a lot of friends who’ve served in Congress. Not congressmen, mind you, we’re all too young for that. Most of them have no desire to run, and I find it difficult to believe that any of them would be stupid enough to ever want to serve. Yet a few of them do. If any of them were to ever run for national office, I would phone bank for them every day, give the maximum possible campaign contribution, utilize whatever miniscule business and political connections I have, and talk them up as the brilliant, wonderful people they absolutely are to everyone I know. And at the end of every day, I’d call that friend to berate him for what an idiot he is for doing this.
The smartest of my political friends have long since realized that true political influence comes not from being the man in charge but the person who tells him what to do. If the Founding Fathers were alive today, none of them would be Presidents, Congressmen or Supreme Court Justices. They wouldn’t have the influence of Founding Fathers, but at least they’d have a chance to affect policy. Thomas Jefferson would be a Fellow writing papers about the impact of Imperial Rule in the Third World for the Brookings Institution, James Madison would be working at the ACLU; John Adams would be a political blogger for The Atlantic, Ben Franklin would be a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Harvard; Alexander Hamilton would be head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and John Jay would be an Under-Secretary in the State Department. The only Founding Father who’d have a prayer of being elected in today’s world is George Washington - mostly because he’s tall, tactful and doesn’t seem to have many opinions.
This is the price we pay for total transparency. Once you learn everything about a person, you begin to realize that there is enough dirt to disqualify absolutely anybody from power. Today’s successful politician must be without blemish, morally unimpeachable and intellectually unobjectionable. In reality politicians may be neither, but they must seem so to the public. However, it takes an enormous mental effort to present an unblemished image. Many politicians are so obsessed with the image they preserve that they become utterly timid creatures - the last to whom it occurs that the current system is not working, even though the very way they live their lives is an indicator of precisely that.
Furthermore, it should be no secret as to why so many of today’s most effective legislators often seem to have the most skeletons. The bull-headedness it takes to effect change in the world’s slowest-moving city is the same bullheadedness it takes to make incredibly stupid mistakes in one’s personal life. Barack Obama is the exception that proves this rule - that a black man who thoughtfully muses about his use of cocaine and former hard-leftism can seem like such an exception in our era testifies to how gullible our country still is.
Many a Washingtonian’s been heard to muse longingly on the good old days of the ‘back-room deal’, when corrupt but competent men decided the fate of our country with a handshake at a cigar and scotch-soaked table. But of all stupid Washington cliches, this has to be one of the most ignorant. Look around us, the back-room deal is more prevalent than ever, and arguably more powerful.
The coalition was always a wellspring of the democratic government, but never has every single interest group had more power to hold up the passing of a law than it is now. All one has to do is look at the contents of Obama’s health care bill (technically called the United States National Health Care Bill). Over the course of 15 months, the bill ballooned to over 2,100 pages, with each interest in the medical community able to obtain special protective clauses and dozens of earmarks appended that have nothing to do health care. Multiple senators threatened to kill the bill at an instant’s notice unless their demands were met.Eventually, it became clear that the bill would not pass in any form unless it placed coverage of every American in the hands of private insurance companies.
So who ultimately did the work of shepherding the bill through over a year’s worth of bargaining, cajoling, finessing and negotiating? The President and his staff deserve credit for even sticking with reform until its completion. But the ultimate credit goes to Hill Staffers who had to do the real bargaining to affect any change. One can only guess that debates which took place in Longworth and Rayburn were far more cogent and knowledgeable than anything heard on the floor. If John Adams was blogging at The Atlantic, then John Quincy Adams was working in Chuck Schumer’s office, spending nine hours a day for nine months on the phone with a Ben Nelson staffer named Henry Clay to debate public funding for abortion.
XIII. 140 Characters
So if the statesman stays in the office, what then is the job of the man on the floor? As Oskar Schindler would say (or at least as he said in Schindler’s List) he makes sure it’s known the company’s in business. He sees that it has a certain panache. That’s what he’s good at. Not the work, the presentation.
What matters in today’s climate is not who best articulates the issues, but who gives the best presentation. For a good presentation, two things are needed. A relateable image, and lots and lots of money. In 2004, the total money spent on elections in America was over $5 billion. Only a bit less than $2 billion of that sum went to federal elections, and only a third of that to the Presidential campaign. The nominating conventions alone cost $162 million, including $29 million of taxpayer money. Almost invariably, the presidential candidate who raises the most money wins the election. 9 out of 10 congressional races are won by the candidate who raises the most money.
Only one factor is nearly as important as money: character. Not the moral character, but the character of the presentation. Candidates are expected to be able to sum up the solution to every issue in a single meme that can be remembered instantly upon hearing it. The more simplified the solution, the less justice it does to the complexity of the issue, and the more attractive the solution becomes to voters.
But even if moral character has nothing to do with the presentation, politicians go to great lengths to assure us that it does. The moral character of candidates is constantly called into question. As an issue in elections, competence rarely has a chance. In its place, the public requires a relatable image, and access to so much money that every candidate is utterly unrelatable to the public.
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