Thursday, August 18, 2011

Zero Tolerance for Absolutism!

Last week, I shared on Facebook that I'd had this crazy idea of making congress and senate terms LONGER. As I continue to observe what passes for discourse in our society and read the comments on various news articles or opinion pieces, it drives me to other crazy ideas.
Today I was reading Robert Reich on what he hoped would be in the president's Jobs Agenda. He had ten ideas that he thought would boost the economy (which is the quickest and most effective way to get the budget under control). Reich has his own opinions, but as former Labor Secretary, Rhodes Scholar, and respected political economist they ought at least to be listened to. When I read the normal commenters pointing out how stupid Reich was and how hopeless his solutions were, I thought that maybe I needed to take them seriously for a minute.

Twenty years ago, Jeralynne and I got to hear Theda Skocpol talking about what she called "Targeting within Universalism" as a strategy for assisting the underclass. The idea is that while there are general benefits that extend to members of a society one can focus specifically within that on particular problem areas. Her view, and those of others like her, have been influential in the progressive approach to government. The argument is that there is a difference government can make to mitigate social situations which benefit the whole society in the long run.

But such a view requires a long-term view and a willingness to allow differential treatment. These are two views that today's rhetoric won't allow. Our current rhetoric has moved to all or nothing. 

  • Are we in favor of mitigating global warming or hampering business with needless regulations?
  • Will we have a social safety net for those in need or commit to supporting freeloaders
  • Should we supporting folks who abused the mortgage industry or provide foreclosure assistance for those upside down?
  • Should we privatizing social security and medicare or “don’t touch my benefits”
  • Are we committed to an unfettered free market or open to targeted Keynsian economic policy?
  • Are we committed to tax fairness or to cutting taxes?

In general, we've bounced around between these polar views. I don't know how to overcome the polarization (and many politicians and pundit have no interest in doing so).
So I’ve been thinking about pragmatism and the art of compromise. It’s important to win the long campaign even if one might lose the near-term battle. 

It strikes me that we have some sociological and theological realities that limit our reliance on absolutism. First, Weber made clear that the nature of the bureaucratic form is that it prizes rationality above all Rules are to be followed in all cases. Sometimes, the application of rules for good reason have bad effects. (examples abound – school religion decisions, local decisions about holiday celebrations, an arrow maker in Oregon who gets caught by federal law, environmental impact studies that favor the snail darter). Bureaucracies aren’t effective at dealing with scale. Because they're committed to rationality and equal treatment, we deal with every situation as a potential infraction (which feeds the outrage machine at Fox and other places).

Theologically, we acknowledge that people are sinful. They will act in ways that allow greed, selfishness, and callousness to need to bear fruit (even when hidden behind more benign-sounding rationales). Systems don’t work perfectly because of the limitations of the folks implementing the systems (examples again abound – oil industry regulators partying with industry folks, continuation of ethanol subsidies in spite of profits, over-aggressive rulemakers with personal axes to grind, mine owners who ignore safety citations because they know there aren’t enough investigators).

These sociological and theological challenges become particularly problematic when connected to a “zero-tolerance” approach to government. The zero tolerance approach had great popularity in public schools as it related to sexual harassment, bullying, and weapons. Once again, it doesn’t take long on Google to find examples where the zero tolerance approach yields really bad decisions. 

But this focus on zero tolerance adds to the burden of good government. And it really upsets the commenters I read.

So I've willing to think about things from their perspective (told you it was crazy). 

What if we focus on levels of severity? For example, we could lessen requirements for environmental impacts under normal circumstances but drastically raise the penalties for environmental damage. So BP has its problem in the Gulf and the penalties are so large as to make BP not competitive for years to come. 

We could do the same thing with medicare. We'll be less concerned about "waste, fraud, and abuse" at the outset and let the system do its own thing. But if you commit fraud, you're going to jail for a long time and reimbursing those harmed. 

We could provide mortgage assistance to folks who were impacted by the refinancing craze who found the house underwater (particularly those with ARMs) but incur stiff criminal penalties for owners and bankers who significantly gamed the  system. 

We could allow charter schools as an alternative to public education but if they don't perform investors sacrifice four times their investment (read about Zaccheus in the book of Matthew) that would be dedicated to the public schools.

In some ways, this approach could fit in nicely with the celebrity culture of the media. We could make Bernie Madoff stories over everyone listed in the last paragraph and let Nancy Grace interpret their trial every night.
This crazy idea is actually related to the psychology of reinforcement -- one can get good results by random reinforcement with HUGE rewards or punishments. (I once argued that I could take attendance only once a semester but if you were missing you'd drop two letter grades -- it would work but I've never had the guts to try it.)

So I'm willing to explore alternatives to my preferred solutions. Can the other side please do the same? Can we declare a moratorium on our talking points for two years to get the economy back on its feet?

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