Commentary - May, 2006

Towards a Better Politics

REDEFINING THE POLITICAL AGENDA: From Boxes to Loops 

Remember the old birthday joke? You give a friend a big box. Everyone waits with bated breath to see the grand gift inside. The box is opened. Inside is another box. And so on. Politics is like that these days -- a big box with lots of empty boxes inside. We’re boxed in and don’t know how to break out.

 

It’s not just the interest group boxes, the fact that politicians are seen as wedded to special interest groups -- as if any one of us represented interests somehow less than “special.” No; it’s the language; it’s our very way of thinking about issues. Any issue that comes down the pike, no matter how; we pin a label on it; we put it in a box. Corresponding to the issue box is a bureaucratic (program) box and a budget (line-item) box. It’s easier for us to deal with things this way, but the supposed simplicity turns out to be increasingly complex and costly.

 

First, box-like issue and program definitions prevent us from seeing how issues and programs are interrelated and interactive in a world where, increasingly, everything is related to everything else. Second, labels affect people’s behavior, often in ways that run counter to our aims, hopes and expectations. Third, the box brand of thinking infects the basic structure and behavior of government agencies in ways that reinforce people’s thinking that government is not working for them. Fourth, it perverts the political process itself.

 

Note, for example, the following types of box-ism:

 

Ÿ         Those labeled “disadvantaged” act the part.

Ÿ         People included in a program box become “clients.”

Ÿ         The segregation of programs into boxes called bureaus or offices provides a false sense that the program’s issue-problems are being managed. For example, bureaus responsible for “intel” have been placed into a bigger box labeled “Homeland Security.”

Ÿ         Political consultants and campaigns steal a leaf from the marketing industry notebook: They classify people into marketing categories (boxes) such as “yuppie,” “joe six pack,” “NASCAR dads”, et al.

 

Fortunately, most people have more common sense than politicians and their consultants. They sense, at least instinctively, that the problems that affect their lives do not fall into the same old boxes. So the political vocabulary is starting to change. Some politicians, instead of just talking about a “farm” a “Social Security”, or a “health” problem, for example, are talking in terms of solutions that crosscut these “problem” boxes -- terms such as incentives, investment, community, self-help, productivity, entrepre-neurship, innovation and decentralization. Individually or in some combination, these can help to resolve problems in any of the conventional boxes. Like so much in American politics, however, the shift is somewhat subconscious and ad hoc. We need to recognize the shift for what it is and tailor our agenda to fit -- towards systemic problems and cybernetic solutions. The box of “energy conservation,” for example, can now be seen anew as part of a “problem” requiring more a more systematic approach, that of global warming.

For the alternative vision is shaped by loops instead of boxes. Linkages and relationships are key. Interdependence is the rule. Interactions are many. Trend lines are broken; their trajectories follow complex curves instead of straight lines. Consequences of actions taken (e.g., Iraq) may be chaotic and unpredictable. Social subsystems are self-organiz-ing; they  respond slowly to government intervention, if at all. Process (means) is more important than product (ends) Ends do not justify means. Ironically, an old political maxim may best serve to describe the new, loop-wise view: “What goes around, comes around.”

 

The vision is that of a dynamic development process with lots of loops called “feedback.”  For example, investment in people leads to an increase in innovation, which leads to an increase in productivity that leads to more investment in people. The loop is closed and the process is positively reinforcing -- a virtuous cycle. There are negative loops, too, called vicious circles. E.g., Iraq?

 

The above processes are generic; they pertain to virtually any problem box, even to foreign and national security concerns. The implied approach is not, for example, to say to voters that we are going to fix problem X,Y or Z; rather, we are going to change the myopic, “fix it” mindset (the mental box) that led to the problem. The Bush Administration thought that invasion of Iraq would provide a quick fix. And then???

 

Here, one can only hint at the many applications of this new view. A longer essay would show, for example, how it leads to an emphasis on…

 

Ÿ         Thinking “out of the box,” as consultants to business have been urging for years.

Ÿ         Relationships honoring reciprocity, recognizing that everyone has something to give and that no one wants to be treated like a client.

Ÿ         Helping people to help themselves.

Ÿ         Strengthening community and community-based organizations, and relying upon them for a significant portion of public services’ delivery.

Ÿ         De-centralization of government, enabling us to “Think globally and act locally.”

Ÿ         a longer-term view, informed by both the lessons of history and a sense of the future.

Ÿ         Entrepreneurial leadership and institutional innovation.

Ÿ         Problem prevention rather than crisis intervention.

Ÿ         Learning from our experience, the best feedback.

 

Thus, let us not get locked into the old boxes. Let us break the molds of old mindsets and forge new links into loops that provide feedback, new insights and more systematic approaches to issues -- approaches that do more than provide appearances of problem solving while recycling problems and producing unintended, undesired consequences.

 

             PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., Danville, NH, 03819   (published in the Eagle Tribune on May 18, 2006)

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