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Saturday, November 10, 2012

My blog sabbatical

I have been away from my blog. I can't say for sure why I have not been inspired to write. I suspect it has been a combination of factors: time, the election, Hurricane Sandy, and the natural cycle of writing.

I find politics both consuming and possibly irrelevant. Some much of what candidates say in the lead up to elections is really irrelevant to what they actually try to do or succeed in doing once elected. In many respects political leaders function within political systems very much like our individual conscious selves within our brains. Jonathan Haidt writes (in his book The Happiness Hypothesis) of a rider on a conscious rider on an unconscious elephant.

" I'm holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn't have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I'm no match for him.
...The controlled system [can be] seen as an advisor. It's a rider placed on the elephant's back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will...
...The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don't always work together well."

Under ideal circumstances, like the rider a political leader can lead by seeing into the future and help the electorate make better choices. However, it rarely works that way. The electorate generally fails to understand that political tools are very limited in terms of what issues can be effectively addressed. Political entities can pass laws which ostensibly can compel people to behave in certain ways. They also can take money from from one set of people and transfer it to another set of people. Neither of these tools are particularly precise and as political entities become more ambitious, the intended consequences tend to become dwarfed by the unintended consequences of their actions.

Still, people tend to overstate the capabilities of government to solve problems. The

issue is long standing. In the old testament in Samuel, the Israelites demand that they have a King. Basically everyone else had one and it was reasonable to believe that their problems could be more effectively addressed by allocating power to a single wise individual. However, concentrated power generally ends up in the hands of those who desire it most and more often than not, they are motivated primarily NOT by their desire for public service. Furthermore, even if they are fundamentally good, the elephant driver issue will render them less than optimally effective. The elephant will end up going where it wants to go short of actions which incapacitate the elephant. No one is a winner under those circumstances.

I think back upon my undergraduate days when I was friends with a Mr. John ___. He was part of a menagerie of very interesting and entertaining individuals all residing in my dormitory. It was a very different world whose most distinguishing feature was that its inhabitants still retained a very robust sense of humor. Most of us were not living our lives in an attempt to avoid any action which could affect our political careers 20 years in the future. We did things which now in retrospect might have required some degree of explanation on current applications for hospital credentials.

I believe it was during John's junior year that he decided to run for president of the the student body. He was a consummate outsider, not a member of Greek life unless one viewed him as an official member of GDI. We were a cynical bunch, cynical of politics are any level. The Watergate scandal was ongoing and there was skepticism that any of the scoundrels could be trusted. John came up with what I still believe was a brilliant idea. He would run on the apathy ticket and his slogan was to be "Don't vote. Elect John!". It was his plan to claim all the votes of students who failed to vote. His election platform was to dismantle student government and his mandate would come if less than half of the student body voted.

As it turned out, slightly more than half of the student body voted, thus undermining John's claim to higher office. However, the story was not so straight forward. For reasons not entirely clear, some of the students actually voted for John and if one to remove these votes from the total, less than half the student body actually voted. Legitimately John could claim that those who voted for him cost him the election! He was heart broken and I believe that this was his last foray into the quest for higher office.

I think John basically had it right. Be skeptical of the capabilities of what elected offices can accomplish. It is too bad that this message is so hard to translate into enlightened leadership that understands its limits. You can be undermined even by those who are trying to help.

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