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Thursday, May 5, 2011

When the Campaign Eclipses Governing: A Matter of Values

In the mix of politics and government in any republic, stretches of governance are marked off by much shorter electoral seasons.  As decision-points, election campaigns are not designed to be of a considerable duration, particularly relative to that of governing.  In other words, the point of elections is governance, whereas the objective of governance is not (and thus should not be) elections. The reason is that the function of elected representatives is to govern rather than to run yet again. When the interstices become the long lines, and the long lines are reduced to interstices, one can expect popular fatigue from incessant fighting and frustration from a lack of attention on governing.

In April of 2011, American news networks were claiming, “2012 has officially begun.” There was a conflict of interest in the assertion because the media stood to gain viewers from brewing controversies among the candidates for president. Both the candidates and the journalists stood to gain from the increased attention.  In early May, for example, the Huffington Post attempted to turn the story of Obama’s killing of Osama into one of electoral politics in the “upcoming” 2012 election. According to the Post, “The daring nighttime raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan draws a sharp contrast between President Barack Obama and a field of potential Republican challengers who have comparatively scant foreign policy experience.” The key word here is potential. Might it be more prudent to wait for the challengers to officially announce and start actively campaigning before analysis of a “determined” set of candidates is commenced?

Moreover, the attempt to steer the foreign policy story into the field of electoral politics implicitly suffers the opportunity cost of attention being diverted from other foreign policy questions that are related to the death of bin Laden, such as whether Pakistan knew of his compound and whether U.S. foreign aid should continue. The otherwise greater intensity of coverage on Pakistan's role might have made the difference in upping the pressure to the point at which someone in Pakistan with the inside scoop would have cracked and spilled the beans on what Pakistani government officials had really known.  

One of the few downsides of a free society is that media distractions can run far and wide--even snowballing without taking root. To the extent that representatives are either behind such distractions or are pressured to join them, a republic is vulnerable to excessive democracy (the bad side of the demos identified by Plato and Aristotle with the mob). The American citizenry may be too prone to vicariously enjoy the fights of a campaign (the modern day version of going to the statium to watch the gladiators?) while finding the civic responsibility of keeping attuned to the governing (or at least letting the representatives govern in peace) too boring and banal--not sufficiently stimulating in an age of "reality" shows playing out on television. Must the lowest denominator rule in a republic?

As another example of campaigning eclipsing governing in the context of governance, the health-insurance reform in 2009 and 2010 can be cited. The question of whether there should be a government alternative to private health insurance companies quickly gave rise to health-insurance-company-sourced talking points on death-panels thrown to partisans like Sarah Palin, who was not involved in the governing. Also, whether Barak Obama was a socialist was staged as a sideshow oriented to the campaigning realm. For whatever reason, it was difficult for the media (and presumably the viewers) to stay on point even when policy makers were trying to determine the merits of a public option.  In other words, even having representatives oriented to policy discussions may not be sufficient to keep a restless media and citizenry attuned. However, even some of those representatives might have believed their policy positions to be strengthened from a campaign-oriented digression. In an open society, multiple entrance points exist for self-interested distractions.

To be sure, citizen participation during the intervals of governance is not necessary in a republic; the problem is when citizens’ diversions enabled by the media (and/or government officials) eventuate in the governors turning to campaigning even without an election in sight. A crucial difference between representative and direct democracy is that in a republic governance is delegated to representatives. In other words, the citizenry is not obliged to remain engaged once governance again takes over after an election. This does not mean, however, that the citizenry must take the bait when some representatives are tempted to divert from governance by starting the next election cycle too early. Nor does it mean that elected representatives must take the bait from some journalists who suspect a wider viewership (or readership) could be obtained from stirring up campaign controversies even years before the next election.

Perhaps the underlying question is whether a representative democracy necessarily succumbs to the lowest common denominator, or whether a citizenry has the requisite impulse control to maintain the viability of the political system by refusing to distract the governors from their governing (or to take the bait from bored or campaign-oriented officials). It is essentially a matter of what the citizenry values: the duration wherein representatives govern or the titillating excitement of a childish fight at the expense of governing. The funny thing about a republic is that what we observe in our representatives can be a reflection of ourselves.  We blame them exclusively at our own folly. In other words, it takes two to tangle. If there is an adult in the house, perhaps we could get on with governing.


Charles Babington, “GOP Presidential Field For 2012 Maintains Foreign Policy Void,” The Huffington Post, May 5, 2011.

Jeff Zelleny, “Obama Will Move Political Operations to Chicago,” The New York Times, January 20, 2011.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Osama Killed by Obama: What Does American Patriotism Stand For?

On the day after Osama was killed by Obama, people in the American states were united in a feeling of pride for their union. Midway through a run at sunset, I paused beneath an American flag. I was caught not out of breath but by the distinct snapping sound of lazy flapping noises as the flag rolled in the light breeze. I looked up and stared at the red, white and blue performing its series of rolls. The fabric was much more alive than that stiff, wired flag still on the surface of the moon. A flag is meant to be alive—literally carried along as troops advance on a battlefield. Today’s flags hanging off still poles next to restaurants and car dealerships can hardly capture the dynamic energy of victory. To be sure, such victory was hinted at the night before as people ran hither and dither carrying flags in celebration outside the White House. It had struck me in watching the joyous scene how rare such clear-cut victories are.  It is a pity that some enemy must die for such clarity to be celebrated in a spirit of unity.

Looking up at sunset at the American flag—a symbol that has seemingly always been around—I wondered what it really stands for. What values cling most firmly to it?—nevermind the principles that are formally entailed in it. Turning to look at the auto business sponsoring the flag, I noticed a large sign displayed high up across one of the building’s walls above the repair garage: “Free Courtesy Cars for Customers with Select Insurance Companies.” My mind instantly leapt to “Free health-care for citizens with select health insurance only”—the others don’t get any. Is monetary-based exclusion the American way? What does that flag say about those who are not among the select? Is the red, white and blue referring to people living here who have money—the others just sort of existing here as though permanent aliens?

As my eyes were about to go back up the flag pole, I noticed that between tree trunks the naked sun was just about to touch the ground. Heaven would meet earth for a split-second before the ground ate into the perfect circle. I thought of Ben Franklin’s comment at the end of the U.S. constitutional convention in 1787 as he was wondering aloud whether the sun painted on the back of the presider’s chair was rising or setting. It would be ironic if on the day after a great military victory I associated the setting orange disc with the bright colors waving above me; something about the “select insurance companies” wording on the wall of the sponsoring company was giving me a proclivity to do just that, even as I felt a sense of pride in my eyes being drawn to the power in the movements of the giant fabric above me.

After my run, I briefly spoke with an auto-plant worker visiting from Michigan. He had been watching the Detroit Tigers play the Yankees.  He was disappointed in his team because even with a $200 million payroll, they had lost to Minnesota (I think). Of course, the Yankee organization knew how to put out the money to buy talent. The Tiger fan put it more bluntly. “The Yankees buy championships.” For a fan to reduce baseball teams to their payrolls seemed odd to me. Do fans in other regions of the world reduce sport to money, or is there something distinctly American about it? Whereas in Europe player captains receive championship trophies, team owners tend to get the honor in America. Clearly, a subtle difference in the value of wealth (and money as a motivator) distinguishes the United States from the European Union. Might wealth itself be what America is known for as a society?—a people obsessed with valuing money?

Can we go so far, moreover, as to conclude that the American flag stands for money? If so, did the patriotism evinced in the wake of Osama’s death reduce to dollars and cents? The political uncertainty that comes with terrorism is unquestionably bad for business. Even so, the sense of justice achieved through the execution—we could not even risk a trial—stood on the principle of an eye for an eye. Money, it could be said, was put in the service of a normative debt to be paid for the loss of innocent lives even though they could never be retrieved. However, it is difficult to see how the patriotism evinced reduces to greed.

So what does the American flag really exude? Patriotic confidence? An in-crowd based on wealth? Perhaps some other set of values that can only be observed from a distance? What does the diverse empire of fifty republics united in an extended republic stand for? Is there a common denominator or is the patriotism of victory an artificial construction based on convenience?  I suspect that these questions will go unanswered until or unless Americans are called on to sacrifice, for it may be that the value of self-denial is too far removed from what the flag has come to represent.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Leadership at Lehman: On the Failure of Richard Fuld

The failure of Lehman Brother suggests that too much power may go with formal position while non-positional leadership in organizations is not given enough of a chance to check the excesses of office. Richard Fuld could take advantage of much having to do with his formal position so he would not have to lead. In contrast, a competent subordinate, Mike Gelband, faced a considerable headwind in trying to lead through persuasion without the benefit of a position trumping Fuld’s own.

The full essay is in Essays on the Financial Crisis, which is available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.