Hello world!

Posted on February 7, 2010

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In the last sentence of his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln captured his idea of the purpose of government in a memorable parenthetical phrase – “of the people, by the people, for the people”.  Today, I know of no one, of any political persuasion, who thinks that our current government works in an effective way “for the people.”

James Fallows, the longtime editor of Atlantic Monthly, recently wrote a very thoughtful article in January’s issue entitled How America Can Rise Again.” The headline is much more positive in tone than the article as a whole.  Fallows argues, rightly I think, that unlike American business, science, education, and pop culture, which continue to re-invent themselves and are in many ways the envy of the rest of the World, American government is “old and broken and dysfunctional”.  Although our founding fathers created what was at the time an incredible system of government, American government has failed to adapt and re-invent itself, in the way that other, more successful areas of American culture have done.  Here is my favorite sentence from the article: “A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry.”

Having done a virtuoso job of analyzing the problem, what does Fallows suggest as a fix?  He first dispenses with a variety of fanciful solutions: a benign military coup, a rewriting of the constitution in a new constitutional convention, a viable third party, a Sputnik or 9/11 type event that spurs corrective action.  He concludes that none of these are likely to happen, and comes down to two choices: muddling through or cutting off government from the rest of the society, so that its gangrenous effects don’t infect the rest of what works in America.  Anyone who has read Fallows over the years won’t be surprised that he rejects the second solution, and his argument is compelling.  Societies without rule of law, that drift into policies that work for the few and exacerbate inequality (think Russia of the 1990’s) inevitably impact the private sector as well.  I would argue that we are already seeing this at work – as our auto companies are not competitive with those from other countries at least in part because of the cost of our ineffective health care payment system, and the inability of our government to do anything about it; as our schools fail to educate students who become (or don’t become) workers, as our roads and bridges collapse around us.

In the end, Fallows concludes, all we can do is to “muddle through”.  If he provides any prescription for improvement of American government, it is that we take the long view (75 years, in his formulation).  But he fails to explain how, in the era of sound bites and a 24-hour news cycle, we can begin to make decisions with the long view in mind.

As much as I respect James Fallows (and I’ve revered him for years), this is a terrible prescription.  Can you imagine if Lou Gernstner, after analyzing all of IBM’s problems in 1993 after he joined IBM as the new CEO, had said to the troops, “Let’s just muddle through and take the long view and maybe things will get better 75 years from now”.  I doubt he would have retained his position until the next board meeting, much less had the re-invigorating effect that his leadership had on the business.

An overly simplistic prescription for American business, trotted out with the least provocation, is to take the long view.  If only CEOs weren’t held hostage to quarterly earnings reports, the nostrum goes, then they could do the right thing for their business.  But American business doesn’t re-invent itself and continue to succeed because American CEOs are any better (or at least not much better) than American politicians at taking the long view.  American business continues to innovate and lead because effectiveness and performance are rewarded, and ineffectiveness and lack of performance are punished.  To my mind, that is the critical difference between those sectors of American society that continue to adapt and improve, and American governance, which seems old and creaky and tired by comparison.

Let’s apply those same principles to governance.  Let’s reward effectiveness and performance, and punish ineffectiveness and non-performance.  Of course that’s easier said than done.  In business, we can measure performance based on revenue, earnings and share price in public companies.  In governance, we have no national consensus on what good governance looks like and how it should be measured.

Hence this blog.  A play on the words “govern us” and “govern U.S.”, this blog will look at effectiveness and performance in American government and take a stand on how to measure effectiveness.  It will try to measure politicians and policies not by political party or ideology, but by what works, what is effective.  We’ll try to suggest new ideas, new approaches, to making a more effective government, just as an effective CEO seeks to improve the effectiveness of his company.

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