Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Super-Failure: Why the Super-Committee Failed

I don't usually blog on national political news, but this one is hard to resist! As we all know, the so-called "Super- Committee" failed to reach a consensus on budget cuts and revenue. Although, the blogosphere is teeming with complex post-mortem explanations as to why it failed, I have a much simpler explanation. They were asked to "cut the budget" and/or "enhance revenue." What they really needed to do is reform wasteful programs and departments within that budget and reform the tax code.

Congress has a moral and political responsibility to make sure that tax dollars are spent as efficiently as possible. However, nearly every government program and department is riddled with well-documented wasteful spending. By far the worst budget-busters are the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. The "visible waste" in  these bloated, unsupervised bureaucracies is legendary, while the "invisible waste" is hidden away in budgetary "black holes," where little is known and budgets are fictional. There's no telling how many investigations have been conducted by both governmental and non-governmental watchdog groups: costly research that invariably disappears into other well known "black hole:" the "congressional archives." Ironically, some of the best unread research is conducted by Congressional Budget Office. In short, everyone agrees that these programs and departments need reform, and there's plenty of information out there prescribing what needs to be done. The same can be said for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. But simply cutting the budgets of inefficient, bureacracies will only make those programs less efficient and more wasteful.

What about revenue enhancement? Again, everyone in Congress knows that our tax system has become a bastion of unfairness and incomprehensibility. It's so arcane and complex that most Americans employ third parties to file their taxes. It's even incomprehensible to the IRS! The astronomical error rate for the chronically understaffed, under-brained IRS has been documented many times over, in 6,000 page reports. Unfortunately, those reports are ultimately filed away in the Congressional Archives, or well hidden from Internet search engines, never to be seen again. Moreover, everyone knows that the tax code needs to be reformed from top to bottom, but that's not  even on the political horizon. Herman Cain's feeble-minded 9-9-9 tax proposal clearly illustrates this tendency to ignore well-known facts. 

So, if Congress already has access to the information necessary to reform and/or eliminate wasteful spending, why don't they do it? That's a good question. Here's my theory. First of all, individual congressmen rarely if ever read anything substantive. Why not? First of all, there's so much information, misinformation, and disinformation manufactured by government agencies that it's impossible for any one human to read even a small portion of it. That's why individual lawmakers hire an army of congressional staffers to read it and summarize it. Now, there's no guarantee that staff members are themselves competent and/or actually read and comprehend those 6,000 page reports. Nevertheless, staffers pass on those summaries to illiterate congressmen, who may (or may not) read them.  

So why is it that politicians don't read and act on this vast body of well-documented information? Well, it's because they are politicians and therefore spend most of their time, energy, and resources running for re-election. Watch C-Span and marvel at the quasi-articulate speeches delivered before an empty rooms! But then again, when they do show up for work, they rarely vote on anything. Check out what congress has actually accomplished this year! Your jaw will drop! 

So why did the super-committee fail? Well, for starters they were pursuing the wrong goal. Why pay a group of lawyers to argue endlessly over whether to cut budget items and/or increase revenue under the guise of half-baked political and economic theories? They should have been actually fixing and/or cutting inefficient programs and departments and the reforming the tax code. My modest solution? I think we need a whole new batch of politicians with a strong work ethic; statesmen that read more, attend more, and simply act more. I would also argue that we have WAY too many lawyers in Congress that stay in office WAY too long. Let's insist that the forthcoming 2012 Congress actually read, attend, and act upon what's already known. In sum, we Americans have been WAY too tolerant of incompetent lawmakers. Next November, I propose that we vote out every single incumbant in the House and Senate, and whenever possible vote for third party candidates. In short, let's fix the system ourselves.                 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why Read Machiavelli's THE PRINCE?

Over the years non-philosophers done a pretty effective job of disparaging the philosophical writings of Nicolo Machiavelli's writings. Leadership scholars simply dismiss his works under the rubric of "bad leadership." Among psychologists the term "Machiavellian intelligence" refers to the human (and Chimpanzee) propensity for deception. In fact, the adjective itself, "Machiavellian," has become synonymous with deception and immorality. Philosophers, political scientists, and scholars that have actually read (and understand) his seminal works: The Prince, Discourses on Livy, and  The Art of War have a much more nuanced assessment.

As you read The Prince it's important to understand Machiavelli's philosophical moorings. First and foremost, Machiavelli is a descriptive empiricist. Therefore, in contrast to the a priori, deductive, rational epistemology employed by Plato in The Republic, Machiavelli believes that human knowledge can only be ascertained via inductive observation of the world, or as Plato would say "in the cave." In other words, if you want to know how to organize a group of human beings, Machiavelli suggests that the best way to begin that process is to uncover the descriptive facts: How are sucessful organizations organized?

Second, Machiavelli is a prescriptive utilitarian; that is, he (like Plato) believes that a good organization produces more happiness than unhappiness. Like Plato, Machiavelli believed that political leadership is especially important and that "bad leaders" destroy themselves and their organizations and "good leaders" preserve themselves and their organization. Based on historical evidence, Machiavelli described how thoroughout the course of human history, leaders and followers tend to behave within certain kinds of organizational contexts. At the beginning of The Prince he identifies two different organizational contexts: republics (shared governance) and principalities (monarchy).  The Prince explores the "nature" of principalities. So as you read The Prince keep in mind that he is not "prescribing" monarchy as the best way to organizise human beings, he's only "describing" the kind of behavior that you'll observe in principalities. Of course, some principalities survive for a long time, while others have suffer extinction.

Now it's important to emphasize that both Plato and Machiavelli are both utilitarians of sorts, and therefore agree that the primary value of collective life is that it brings about more happiness than unhappiness. Philosophers call this flourishment. Therefore, Plato and Machiavelli that are trying identify the underlying political arrangements that increase happiness and decrease unhappiness. Recall that in The Republic Plato attempted to prove that tyrants are unhappy and the organizations that they head are also unhappy. Well, what Machiavelli is going to argue in The Prince is exactly what Thrasymachus would have argued in The Republic if he had chosen to remain engaged in the dialectic with Socrates. In other words, Machiavelli is going to do philosophy within "the cave," in a world where humans actually possess the equivalent of "Gyges Ring."

One of Machiavelli's of The Prince is the idea that sometimes leaders have to make decisions where none of anticipated outcomes are ideal. In short sometimes leaders must get their hands dirty; that is "choose between lesser evils." Philosophers call this the "ethics of dirty hands." Political leadership often takes place within this context, however you might argue that other leadership contexts also entail getting your hands dirty. Machiavelli argued that virtue-based ethics in the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions cannot provide moral guidance in these contexts and that "virtuous leaders" (in the Platonic sense) are deposed by followers and/or conquered by other nations. The question for you is as follows: "Are there times when leaders MUST "enter into evil" in order to avoid catastrophic consequences? If so, does this apply to other leadership contexts?"             

Sunday, November 6, 2011

African Development

A Facebook friend of mine from Ghana asked me what I thought about "African Development." That's a tough question...given the fact that I don't know very much about Africa or the various nation states that currently dominate political discussions. But like most philosophers, I won't let my ignorance of the facts stand in the way of participating in that discussion. That's because there are philosophical issues that I can help sort out. The following is my edited and expanded response. 

First, what do you mean by "African development?" It could mean many things. Philosophically, the concept of development signifies progress toward a desirable goal via some means. So to talk "development" we need to identify both a GOAL and the MEANS of achieving that goal. Also, we need to clarify what you mean by "Africa." Are you referring to the entire continent of Africa as a whole or the nation-state of Ghana? There are also "long-term goals" and "short-term goals" and various means of achieving both. Some "goals" are realistic (means are known and can be implimented) and others are idealistic (imaginable but impossible to realize). Of course, we don't always KNOW with certainty which goals are "realistic" and what's "idealistic." Right now, it's hard to set long-term or short-term development goals for Africa as a whole because there's very little social, cultural, or political unity. Even national identity in many African countries are currently in a flux. Do you envision African unity, where all the various tribes, religions, and nation states "cooperate" toward a specific ENDS? If so, by what means MEANS to you plan to to impliment in bringing about that end?

Having said all that, let's return to the original question: "What do you mean by African development?" I assume that you are referring to "economic development." Does your vision for African economic development refer to the ability of Africa to operate (survive or thrive?) independent of the rest of the world (autonomy and self-sufficiency); or,  do you want Africa to develop the capacity to participate in the global economy? Both goals have implications for one's vision of the future of African identity. If economic autonomy and self-sufficiency are your long term goals, then what social, cultural, and political traditions do you embrace, and how do you instill those values? How do you reject the old values? In short, how does economic development relate to sociopolitical development?

Now if your ultimate goal is for Africa to participate in a global economy, you'll have to promote social, cultural, and political traditions that are not hostile to participation in global trade. First of all, Africa would have to embrace rule of law; that is Africans will have to obey rules (that apply to everyone) not what leaders say.  Africans would have reject violence, theft, fraud and breach of contract. If Africa is unable or unwilling to monitor and enforce these basic moral rules, then other nations will not willingly trade with Africa. If you want Africa to be "autonomous and self-sustaining" those same moral and legal rules would have to be enforced. In fact, I would argue that any nation on earth (at any time or any place) that wants to "develop" will have to follow these rules.

 I wish I could say that the United States provides a useful role model, but our society has fallen far short of the "ideal." In fact, much of the economic recession can be attributed to our own failure to uphold these values. So...back again to your original question. What is your vision for Africa 20 years from now? Do you seek a unified Africa (one single sociopolitical entity), or many different competing and cooperating states (like the US and European Union)? Do you want the everyday lives of future Africans to revolve around work, religion, family? Do you want Africans to own a lot of stuff (homes, automobiles, airports, trains, Chinese food, McDonalds food, Western clothes, Western music, Western art etc.)? Or, would you rather revive lost traditions, such as tribal association or subsistence agriculture? What do you think? What is your long-term vision for Africa and how might that vision be realized? What must you do in the sort-term to realize this goal?