Engineering a Better America

There are a couple of theories about why things just work so well – and sometimes they contradict each other. There’re the Great Man theory, where one extraordinary man (or woman) by sheer force of will creates something from nothing much, like the hero of some Ayn Rand novel, or like Howard Hughes. And working for Hughes Space and Communications Group, back in the eighties, we all heard the stories of his bold ideas. It wasn’t just the Spruce Goose – it was lots of stuff that’s still classified, and the stuff the guys were sending into orbit or to the moon and Venus and Mars back then was pretty cool, part of the spirit of Howard Hughes all around. The heads of the labs were trying to top each other. All the young engineers were trying to top each other. And we couldn’t even talk about what we were building for the military. And there was the Hughes Research Center high in the hills over Malibu. You couldn’t even get in there, where the new gizmos had to be absolutely amazing. The extraordinary man built an extraordinary empire of extraordinary ideas made into new technologies that changed everything. And then he went mad, or maybe he was always mad.

And two of his top guys – Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge – left him in 1953 to form TRW (with Thompson Products) – mainly because they’d just had enough of Howard. And eventually TRW became responsible for most of the advanced satellites, especially each new generation of Keyhole spy satellites – and missiles and all sort of advanced electronics no one can imagine and few are allowed to discuss. And Simon Ramo was, and is, the opposite of Howard Hughes – yes, brilliant, but an engineer through and through – and pretty much the father of systems engineering. Systems engineering is all about work-processes and the tools to manage risks on big projects, and it involves control engineering, industrial engineering, organizational studies, and all the tedium of formal project management. So it’s clearly not about one eccentric guy with a brilliant idea. It’s about a system that works. A great system, carefully planned and maintained, produces great results, reliably, over and over. Nothing should be at the mercy of the whims of one nut-case.

And in a nutshell that’s the same conflict that underlies most of what we talk about in politics too. Some people, or most people, think of the brilliant leader who changes everything – FDR or Reagan perhaps. And others think of the system – the complex crosscurrents of money and special interests and center-left populism and far-right evangelical fervor and the media with its odd mix of professional pride and a profit-driven need for sensationalism. There the system is the problem, and it hardly matters who’s in which office at any given time. And that’s a bit of what was behind last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement. Those who asked those protesters who they were mad at – Republicans or Wall Street Bankers or Obama – found they were asking the wrong question. The issue was what they were mad at – not who. These folks were thinking like system engineers. Most people didn’t get it. We like to think in terms of great men, in a narrative of good guys and bad guys.

But something had changed, and in late 2010 two political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, published Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class – “a groundbreaking work that identifies the real culprit behind one of the great economic crimes of our time – the growing inequality of incomes between the vast majority of Americans and the richest of the rich.”

The book did cause a stir:

In their lively and provocative Winner-Take-All Politics, renowned political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson demonstrate convincingly that the usual suspects – foreign trade and financial globalization, technological changes in the workplace, increased education at the top – are largely innocent of the charges against them. Instead, they indict an unlikely suspect and take us on an entertaining tour of the mountain of evidence against the culprit. The guilty party is American politics. Runaway inequality and the present economic crisis reflect what government has done to aid the rich and what it has not done to safeguard the interests of the middle class. The winner-take-all economy is primarily a result of winner-take-all politics.

And they trace much of this back to Jimmy Carter and the Democrats way back when, as a start. And then they tear into the Reagan Revolution, and then they hammer Bill Clinton and the one Bush and then the other. But not really – as the issue is systemic. As Bob Herbert said at the time, this was the “clearest explanation yet of the forces that converged over the past three decades or so to undermine the economic well-being of ordinary Americans” And he wondered “how this could have happened in a democracy in which – in theory, at least – the enormous number of voters who are not rich would serve as a check on policies that curtailed their own economic opportunities while at the same time supercharging the benefits of the runaway rich.”

But he sees the point:

The answer becomes clearer when one recognizes – as the book stresses – that politics is largely about organized combat. It’s a form of warfare. “It’s a contest,” said Professor Pierson, “between those who are organized, who can really monitor what government is doing in a very complicated world and bring pressure effectively to bear on politicians. Voters in that kind of system are at a disadvantage when there aren’t reliable, organized groups representing them that have clout and can effectively communicate to them what is going on.”

So the book is about the “organizational revolution” that took place over the past three decades:

Big business mobilized on an enormous scale to become much more active in Washington, cultivating politicians in both parties and fighting fiercely to achieve shared political goals. This occurred at the same time that organized labor, the most effective force fighting on behalf of the middle class and other working Americans, was caught in a devastating spiral of decline. Thus, the counterweight of labor to the ever-increasing political clout of big business was effectively lost.

This hyper-concentration of wealth and income, and the overwhelming political clout it has put into the hands of the moneyed interests, has drastically eroded the capacity of government to respond to the needs of the middle class and others of modest income.

As they might have said the next summer down at Zuccotti Park – Well, DUH!

And there’s Jonathan Alter, the columnist for Newsweek and one of those political analysts for MSNBC, who has written books on FDR and Obama, writing on this book in relation to the decline of liberalism:

Liberals are also at a disadvantage because politics, at its essence, is about self-interest, an idea that at first glance seems more closely aligned with conservatism. To make their more complex case, liberals must convince a nation of individualists that enlightened self-interest requires mutual interest, and that the liberal project is better constructed for the demands of an increasingly interdependent world.

And liberals have their own special problems:

That challenge is made even harder because of a tactical split within liberalism itself. Think of it as a distinction between “action liberals” and “movement liberals.” Action liberals are policy-oriented pragmatists who use their heads to get something important done, even if their arid deal-making and Big Money connections often turn off the base. Movement liberals can sometimes specialize in logical arguments… but they are more often dreamy idealists whose hearts and moral imagination can power the deepest social change (notably the women’s movement and the civil rights movement). They frequently overindulge in fine whines, appear naïve about political realities and prefer emotionally satisfying gestures to incremental but significant change. Many Democrats are an uneasy combination of realpolitik and “gesture politics,” which makes for a complicated approach toward governing.

As Senator Al Franken says of the Republicans: “Their bumper sticker is one word: No! … Our bumper sticker has – it’s just way too many words. And it says, ‘Continued on next bumper sticker…'”

But liberals have nothing to be ashamed of:

Action liberalism has its modern roots in empiricism and the scientific method. Adam Smith was the original liberal. While “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) has long been the bible of laissez-faire conservatism, Smith’s first book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), pioneered liberal ideas of social and moral interdependence. By today’s standards, Abraham Lincoln’s support for large-scale government spending on infrastructure and appeals to “the better angels of our nature” would qualify him as a liberal. In the 20th century, progressives cleaned up and expanded government, trust-busted on behalf of what came to be known as “the public interest,” and experimented with different practical and heavily compromised ways of addressing the Great Depression.

The quintessential example of the pragmatic core of liberalism came in 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that “Dr. New Deal” had become “Dr. Win the War.” Roosevelt believed that the ends of liberalism – advancing democracy, expanding participation, protecting the environment and consumers (first promoted by a progressive Republican, Theodore Roosevelt), securing the vulnerable – were fixed, but that the timing and means of achieving them were highly negotiable, a distinction that often eludes modern liberals.

And that makes Obama like FDR:

Both men, for instance, rejected the urgent pleas of some liberals to nationalize the banks and tacked toward their goals rather than standing ostentatiously on principle. Roosevelt was criticized by New Deal liberals in 1935 for allowing Congress to water down the Social Security bill before passage. Sound familiar?

Many movement liberals consider such concessions to be a sellout, just as they thought President Bill Clinton sold out by signing welfare reform in 1996. It’s important to criticize parts of Obama’s performance where merited – he didn’t use his leverage over banks when he had it – but some liberal writers have gone further, savaging his motives and integrity.

And now there is the Hacker and Pierson book:

Without rationalizing specific policy choices, they describe the “paradox” Obama confronted on taking office when the country faced a genuine risk of another depression: “how to heal a fragile economy without simply reasserting the dominance of the forces that had brought that economy to the brink of ruin.” It’s the healing part – preventing another depression – that voters often forget in their understandable rage over bailouts, almost all of which, by the way, have already been paid back.

The system trapped Obama, and he had to deal with this:

Over the last three decades, the top 1 percent of the country has received 36 percent of all the gains in household incomes; 1 percent got more than a third of the upside. And the top one-tenth of 1 percent acquired much more of the nation’s increased wealth during those years than the bottom 60 percent did. That’s roughly 300,000 super-rich people with a bigger slice of the pie than 180 million Americans. The collapse of the American middle class and the huge transfer of wealth to the already wealthy is the biggest domestic story of our time and a proper focus of liberal energy.

No one man can do much about that, nor should he be blamed for this, although there are those other guys:

The good news reported by Hacker and Pierson is that American wealth disparities – almost exactly as wide as in 1928 – are not the residue of globalization or technology or anything else beyond our control. There’s nothing inevitable about them. They’re the result of politics and policies, which tilted toward the rich beginning in the 1970s and can, with enough effort, be tilted back over time (emphasis added for impatient liberals). The primary authors of the shocking transfer of wealth are Republicans – whose claims to be operating from principle now lie in tatters. It doesn’t take feats of scholarship to prove that simultaneously supporting balanced budgets, status quo entitlement and defense spending, and huge tax cuts for the wealthy (the Republicans’ new plan) is mathematically impossible and intellectually bankrupt.

But of course Democrats, caught up for years in the wonders of the market, are complicit in the winner-take-all culture:

President Clinton and his Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin played to the bond market, and many of their protégés later came to dominate the Obama administration. Hacker and Pierson call Rahm Emanuel types “Mark Hanna Democrats,” a reference to William McKinley’s campaign manager, who said: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” Action liberals can explain that they opposed the ruinous 2001 Bush tax cuts and that their prodigious fund-raising is necessary to stay competitive, but large segments of their base are no longer buying it. They want a more bare-knuckle attack on Wall Street than Obama has so far offered.

And now the president is getting hit from both sides, for a systemic issue, which Kevin Drum summarizes this way:

In the 60s, at the same time that labor unions begin to decline, liberal money and energy starts to flow strongly toward “post-materialist” issues: civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, gay rights, etc. These are the famous “interest groups” that take over the Democratic Party during the subsequent decades.

At about the same time, business interests take stock of the country’s anti-corporate mood and begin to pool their resources to push for generic pro-business policies in a way they never had before. Conservative think tanks start to press a business-friendly agenda and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce start to fundraise on an unprecedented scale. This level of persistent, organizational energy is something new.

Unions, already in decline, are the particular focus of business animus. As they decline, they leave a vacuum. There’s no other nationwide organization dedicated to persistently fighting for middle class economic issues and no other nationwide organization that’s able to routinely mobilize working class voters to support or oppose specific federal policies. …

With unions in decline and political campaigns becoming ever more expensive, Democrats eventually decide they need to become more business friendly as well. This is a vicious circle: the more unions decline, the more that Democrats turn to corporate funding to survive. There is, in the end, simply no one left who’s fighting for middle class economic issues in a sustained and organized way. Conversely, there are lots of extremely well-funded and determined organizations fighting for the interests of corporations and the rich.

That’s his summary of Hacker and Pierson, and, he says, exactly what you’d expect:

With liberal money and energy focused mostly on non-economic concerns, the country moves steadily leftward on social issues. With conservative money and energy focused mostly on the interests of corporations and the rich – and with no one really fighting back – the country moves steadily rightward on economic issues. Thomas Frank’s famous working-class Kansans who vote against their own economic interests are easily explained. It’s not just that conservatives appeal to them on social grounds, it’s that there’s no one left to really make the economic case to them in the first place. And even if anyone did, they have little reason to believe that Democrats would actually follow through in concrete ways. So why not vote on abortion and gay rights instead?

I’m not doing Pierson and Hacker justice here. In fact, I’m not really even trying to. What I am doing is telling you to buy a copy of their book and read it. Seriously! Just get a copy and read at least Parts I and II. No book is perfect, and I feel a little silly gushing too much, but this is the most complete and sustained explanation I’ve ever read of why, over the past 30 years, America has gone the direction it has even while most other countries haven’t. And although Hacker and Pierson’s sympathies are obvious, this isn’t a polemic. It’s an explanation. For me, it was a 300-page “Aha!” moment.

But for some of us the Aha moment in the Hacker and Pierson book might be this:

Our society’s preoccupation with specific personalities and insistence on attributing everything that happens to the qualities of individuals is a form of blindness. We see individuals, but not the organizations that help to pool their resources and can vastly extend their range of social action. … To understand our politics, and the remarkable transformation it has undergone, we need to cultivate a different sixth sense: a deeper awareness of the powerful role of organizations. …

The tendency to see the world in highly individualized, organization-free terms may be even stronger in political commentary than it is in the way we discuss other parts of the social world. Popular accounts of politics focus on the Hillarys (Clinton, not Edmund). We endlessly analyze the great personalities who dot the political landscape, their psychologies and strategic acumen, their personal appeal and personae, their eloquence (even if manufactured for them by a stable of speechwriters) and gaffes (even if substantially trivial).

No sign of this individualistic focus is more telling than the media’s fixation on elections – and, within their treatment of those political contests, their preoccupation with the “horse race” elements. This intense concentration on the most circus-like aspects of political life is now so thoroughly institutionalized that we hardly notice it. But we should.

Simon Ramo would agree, and Kathleen Geier certainly does:

Some of my comrades on the left are angry at and completely disgusted with Barack Obama. And hey, sometimes I’ve been one of them. His failures – among them, appointing Geithner and Summers, not cracking down on Wall Street, continuing some of the worst aspects of Bush-era national security policy, not making over-the-counter Plan B contraception available to teenagers, his all-too-apparent willingness to slash already-too-meager entitlements in the name of a “Grand Bargain” – all of this is maddening.

And yet, I think we would all do well to abandon the cult of personality that infuses American politics. We need to stop looking at Barack Obama, and our other leaders, in isolation, and start looking at them in a systemic context. Honestly, is there a politician in America who is significantly to the left of Obama who could have been elected president? Sadly, I don’t believe that there is. I have little doubt that his most serious competitor in the primaries, Hillary Clinton, would have had many of the same advisers Obama has, and would have done pretty much the same things. To run for president you need huge amounts of money, and you don’t get it without being beholden to moneyed interests. You also need some degree of support from political and media elites, and those elites tend to be conservative.

In short, it’s the system:

Even a president who was much further to the left than Obama would have problems enacting his agenda. President Bernie Sanders would also have to confront the same issues as Obama, in terms of a reactionary Republican party which is completely intractable and wants him to fail, Blue Dog Democrats who aren’t much better, the necessity for filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, a profoundly hackish and conservative-dominated media, and (now, it appears) a hostile Supreme Court which seriously threatens his signature domestic policy achievement.

So Obama is simply responding to systemic incentives, and those are what anyone on the left should worry about:

Many systemic aspects of our form of government make political change incredibly difficult. The lack of a parliamentary system, our courts and legal system, the bicameral legislature, the committee system in Congress, and the Senate filibuster all provide veto chokepoints for any piece of legislation. On top of that, there are the Electoral College and the Senate, which give disproportionate weight to conservative states and tilt the political playing field to the right. To have a significantly more democratic, less sclerotic government, we’d have to change each and every one of these features and institutions. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen any time soon. Or ever.

Given this political landscape, Barack Obama is, as the Victorians used to say about what were then called women of easy virtue, no better than he should be. Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s important for Obama’s critics on the left to protest, and loudly, when he sells out our interests. In fact, that is our job. If Obama, or any leader, can do whatever he or she chooses without a peep from the left, s/he will totally disregard the left. And to the extent it is possible we can’t allow that to happen.

But it’s high time the American media, and liberals in particular, stop treating politics as if it solely consisted of biography.

But we do like to think in terms of great men, in a narrative of good guys and bad guys. Howard Hughes is fascinating. And so-and-so was a very bad man. But that’s not a useful way to think:

Venting our frustrations at Barack Obama, or Bill Clinton, or any Democratic president is not going to get us very far. For the most part they are doing what any other Democratic president would have done. Radical changes require attacking root causes, and the root causes of the terrible shape this country is in are not Barack Obama’s character defects. It is a political system which strongly favors the interests of entrenched elites and the rich and powerful and makes changes that would benefit the rest of us very, very difficult.

So maybe it’s time to start thinking like a systems engineer. A great system, carefully planned and maintained, produces great results, reliably, over and over. One that’s not working won’t. Simon Ramo would smile. Sometimes nerds, not heroes, are just what you need.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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