Our Problems

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This is picture is so priceless that it seems to warrant repetition. Let us conjecture that this woman is not in need of institutionalization or a tent on the street for want of sufficient mental capacity to survive on her own. Let us further suggest that she does this for effect and publicity, the appearance of melodramatic nonsense a calling card to fame and success. We are helping. She is not alone and not the first, although most in the past were professional comedians. We claim that some facts accounting for this sudden change to rude childishness in politics is the sheer quantity of our problems, their growing complexity, the newness of many, and the circumstance that so many domestic programs stopped making progress twenty to thirty years ago. Our problems have moved past the prospect of sufficient comprehension by our elected leaders and their staffs to summon new thoughts that are sufficiently tractable to gain bipartisan support. So why not choose to be a cartoon character?

Quantity

Name one federal political official today, or candidate for that matter, from either party, who has advanced a serious examination followed by realistic proposal for new programs that address pressing domestic difficulties: health care, education, poverty, race relations, homelessness, immigration, public transit, substance abuse, obesity, police profiling, gun violence, wage gap, abortion, election reform, environmental protection, water management, storm management, mental health, universal broadband, federal debt, affordable housing, violent crime, non-violent crime, domestic violence, and fiscal accountability (this is not a complete list).

We may ask the same question about problems that seem closer to containment or intelligible programs just needing more money or time, or are working fine: affordable housing, infrastructure repair, social services, social security, virus response, disease control generally, criminal justice, domestic environmental protection, carbon emissions, equity in higher education admissions, the gender gap, traffic deaths, building safety and building codes, protection services, food safety, assistance for the disabled, special education, employment law. This list includes a small fraction of issues addressed by the several hundred agencies at the federal level and several hundred agencies for every state and the sometimes hundred or more agencies at large cities that minister to public difficulties and needs. Some are more than 100 years old. A full list would take the breath away if you still have any left. Who do you think has an adequate knowledge of the entire set of daunting issues?

Washington implored America in his farewell address to avoid foreign entanglements. He feared (justifiably) a future attachment to France that would create problems with England, as it surely would, and vice versa. Little could he have known or guessed the status of this country after World War II, the developed world other than America in ruins, America the victor, its choice to rebuild rather than occupy its enemies, the next sixty years revealing or creating a set of new problems no one expected at the time. We discuss a few below, but the list includes global warming, the proliferation of atomic weapons, arms control generally, rising seas inevitably leading to massive emigrations, religious terrorism, cyberterrorism, regulation of global capital, Russia, China, population aging, land and water use pressed by massive increases in the middle class and continued population growth in poor countries, growing populism in underdeveloped countries with echoes in developed countries, virus management, human rights violations, the Middle East cauldron, among others. (We omit from this list issues that have less direct effect on us but are domestic crises in many parts of the underdeveloped world, such as acute poverty, civil wars, health care, education, religious intolerance and violence, corruption, and the internal disasters in many areas caused by global warming.)

Quantity alone matters because anything reasonably new or original must start with legislation. Presidents manipulating regulatory mandates and issuing executive orders have limited values, particularly for deep problems demanding something new. (This point seems to not have occurred to our most recent Republican President, who proposed no interesting new legislation after losing by one vote his effort to shave 20 million people out of health care. His only legislative triumph was reducing taxes that produced greater treasures for the rich and added trillions to federal debt.) Our legislatures have been the same size since Hawaii and Alaska joined the country. Our legislators are pressed now by the demands of reelection and raising money. Senators have large staffs; Representatives do not. But even with large staffs the demands of so many problems demanding so much attention deprives Senators of the time and brainpower to comprehend them all; some clearly have little understanding of any of them. The committee system compounds the problem; legislators get close only to bills that flow through their committees. Furthermore, committee deliberations are not accessible to the public. Floor debates are almost meaningless and floor votes usually reflect some prior understanding of count; surprises are infrequent.

Complexity

Can you think of an elected official other than in theory our President who has a comprehensive and workable understanding of any of our serious problems? Even our President knows them by proxy; he has depth of staff that do such work. Things have gotten more and more complex. Consider health care. The chart above illustrates the administration of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It was drawn just after the bill passed; it was meant as a condemnation, but it puts in perspective a general condition. The ACA did important things, but they were for the most part the construction of an insurance system that extended health care coverage to tens of millions of Americans who could not otherwise obtain it beyond going to the emergency room and then bankruptcy after getting the $50,000 bill for three hours in the waiting area. The ACA bill itself ran to 2500 pages. Anecdotal evidence suggests it took the insurance industry four years to fully absorb it. Yet it failed to even address many critical issues in health care, most arising from the lack of any centralized plan (we are the only developed nation without one), conflicting intentions among its current active players, medical technology improvements of staggering proportions and speed (most coming from the United States in part because we are willing to pay the huge prices for new, complex machinery and drugs) that put pressure on existing facilities and training, enormous growth in obesity, substance abuse, and mental health problems, popular confusion in access given its inherent complexity and confusions, the enormous gap in access between those in Cadillac corporate plans and concierge services compared to those in Medicaid or plans only covering catastrophic illnesses, not to mention the widespread lack of primary care physicians because medical school cost so much that anyone earning an MD through debt must specialize to pay off schooling itself. Oh, and in the country that invented automation, computing, telecommunications, the Internet, and most of the complicated protocols to make them all work seamlessly, our health care system has a comparatively pathetic Automated Medical Records (EMR) collection of incompatible systems, mostly devoted to billing, which reflects the circumstance that (as some believe) 25% of medical costs go to billing administration, not health care. Any sensible program committed to improvement would start there—one, standards based, universal, mandated EMR system with protocols as stable and application additions as easy as the Internet and mobile telephone. Don’t think for a minute that the Internet and mobile telephone systems are not extraordinarily complicated and difficult. EMR lags behind because no one has made the healthcare industry do it, and the industry has not seen fit to do it on its own.

That long inventory is perhaps unique to health care, but most of our other problems are also trapped in upwardly spiraling complexities. Race relations are not what they were in 1960 when the entire problem could be printed by hand on a picket sign. The wage gap was closing until Reagan imposed a stronger free market on the country, expensing labor unions and tax systems that allowed ordinary workers to earn beyond subsistence. Real wages have been flat ever since, while the top 1% has gobbled up all the growth and corresponding wealth generation; we are not recovering labor unions, our federal government seems to have no stomach for raising taxes on the rich, other forms of increased redistribution come with federal debt, returning jobs to American has a similar effect (but at least Biden is doing something in this direction unlike our previous President), and our federal government seems to have also lost its appetite for reducing poverty by some means other than subsidies. Not a single problem on the lists above has not become more complex, more difficult, more distant from our elected leaders level of comprehension, and more immune to solutions accessible to the common mind. So our elected representatives spend their time yelling at our President and each other.

Newness

We should have put global warming at the top of our emergency list thirty years ago when climate scientists began their yearly pilgrimages to Washington with warnings and explanations about what was going to happen. They pled to deaf ears, in part because Congress never listens to the new, in part because scientists could not prove their assertions like one solves a Rubik’s Cube. Global warming fits a part of chaos theory in which not even the past can be fully explained or modeled. But they were right. Weather is more turbulent in both hot and cold directions, arable land is moving north from the equator (in our hemisphere), ice melts more rapidly than predicted, seas rise by levels measured in feet, and it will only get worse as the earth warms from an imbalance in carbon dioxide additions relative to subtractions in the atmosphere, with fossil fuels the central cause of carbon dioxide emissions. Those who do not believe in human contribution to global warming must believe that carbon dioxide does not retain and emit heat and that a light bulb turned on within an enclosed chamber will not warm it up, or that the removal rate is in fact higher than the addition rate. Our domestic program is inadequate; U.S. carbon emissions increased between 2021 and 2022, at a small rate to be true, but we should be dropping 10% a year if we hope to meet the Paris Climate Accord targets. The global program is inadequate. Global carbon emission/reduction/capture programs do not exist, nor is there any agency with power that can compel suitable national policies. It is the paradigm of the new and perilous. The most recent climate report issued by the UN stresses “the need for urgent action to secure a livable future.” Does anyone seem to care what sort of world we will be leaving our grandchildren?

But this highly complex problem is not alone. We have not touched foreign policy. While the problems there are no less complex, many have the added disadvantage of novelty, at least relative to the longer standing problems within the domestic United States. After World War II our country adopted a foreign policy around three ideas: contain communism (meaning then Russia and then China); promote democracy; and promote interlocked economies. All three were aimed at preventing World War III. They were known together as the Truman Doctrine. They still shape our foreign policy thinking. But they are hardly relevant in their original form. Communism as a national form and economic commitment died more than thirty years ago when Russia and China (among many other countries) adopted regulated free market systems without a parallel democratic government. Adam Smith won, Karl Marx lost, that battle at least (Marx understood capitalism as well as anyone, he just hated its exploitation of the working class, as certain an outcome of unfettered capitalism as consolidation of wealth in fewer hands). Republican democracies made huge gains, but many hang on now in underdeveloped countries some of whom find surging populism and its corresponding ascendence of autocrats who, like Putin, are “elected” but not elected. Interlocked economies have surely developed, and may be the triumph of the policy in the end. Russia is now just being stupid. We will see if China follows suit.

Indeed, among the newest of the new is the trend towards globalization in so many theaters of human activity that churned along under the mantel of the presumption of sovereign nations working within formal or ad hoc leagues that have organized international politics for four hundred years (some would put the time longer, but it goes back at least to the Treaties of Westphalia ending the Thirty-year’s War in 1648, it, a religious war between Catholics and Protestants that is accounted by some as the most violent major war in history measured in body count as a percentage of the population).

Read Federalists 15 through 22. There you will see the serious disadvantages of our international organization today. It resembles the United States under the Articles of Confederation. No central authority leads inevitably to competition and violence among member states. But try to find anyone in the United States, or any other nation, ready and willing to forsake significant levels of present national sovereignty for the sake of world peace and communal treatment of our serious problems that clearly demand it. They have exactly the view of the anti-federalists in 1788, but without the advantages binding the states in America together then by natural forces (Jay names them in Federalist 2): common language, common religion, contiguous land mass, more-or-less common history, and a common victory in a war of independence that bound the nation together in its first act as a nation, the winning of a war. If anything the world has gone in the opposite direction, with countries breaking into smaller pieces, as happened to the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, India, and parts of Africa, and England leaving the European Union. (We recognize that the European Union moved towards a more consolidated confederation, but it suffers the serious problems with each country having its own language and established culture and the continuing economic disparities between the rich and poorer countries—the richest with 8 times the per capita income as the poorest; the ratio in the U.S. relative to the 50 states is 2 to 1.)

When India broke off Pakistan to attempt religious separation, when the USSR broke itself apart after the Berlin Wall came down, the world still looked like a battle between two superpowers. Now it is just a mess, with no realistic global answers to these many new problems. Global warming of course leads the list, but we also think of religious terrorism, cyberterrorism, the current geo-political unrest being caused by Russia (war in the Ukraine) and China (threatening Taiwan), global capital and labor, Iran with nuclear weapons, arms control generally, emigration in unprecedented numbers forced by inevitable seas rising (the ice is already melting faster than expected), water and land use under severe pressure from billions rising to the middle class and population growth generally, the negative parts of the Internet, universal broadband access, global virus control and responses, and the persistence of autocratic rule, particularly in the middle east, Africa, some parts of South America, North Korea, Russia, and China. Newness demands new thinking rather than modulations of old habits of mind, a practice our government and its constitution forbid more than demand. But international newness also requires massive shifts in sovereignty to more innovation-minded global organizations.

We are not without positive movement and examples. We have instances of international cooperation that have not risen to permanent shifts in political power but have shown the power of real international cooperation. The Internet and mobile telecommunications may be the best example, markets that now are almost completely free of borders. Yes, it was developed in the United States, along with most of the underlying telecommunications systems, but forward going work is completely international, with most of the protocols ending up at the International Telecommunications Union, a division of the United Nations. We have internationalized the protocols for air and sea travel, and many forms of trading. English is becoming the lingua franca of the world. Interlocked economies have forced international capital protocols, controls, and organizations, particularly after the 2008 recession, itself a sad example of international reach—it was triggered by a major failure in regulations within the U.S. real estate market and banking sector from which underfunded real estate contracts became part of financial portfolios all over the world, dragging them down when the market in the U.S. crashed. However, we now have much better international regulatory systems for capital management than before as a result.

We spend more time here than on the others in part because it is the least understood domestically, and it may be the most intractable going forward. We appeal here for what we see President Biden doing relative to Foreign Policy. Rather than just withdraw, as our last Republican President wanted, or act like World War II just ended and we had to rebuild the world in our own image, the view of President Bush and his cabinet, Biden seems more interested in promoting the development of international relations in which the U.S. may play a leading role but not a paternal role. He has been helped in this respect by Russia invading Ukraine. Supporting Ukraine with arms and money, pulling NATO together as a force that also abjures direct engagement but provides serious levels of support, and organizing sanctions with lateral help from other nations feels like the right kind of role for this country to play going forward. It will feel more like a sovereignty ooze than anything resembling an explicit transfer of power, but it is probably the best we or anyone can do until the needs, benefits, and suitable structures become self-evident. Don’t wait up.

Standing Still

Many of our old domestic problems stopped making progress under existing programs some decades ago; some are regressing. We think of health care as a right (that is, equitable health care for all), education, the wage gap, immigration, race relations, police profiling, poverty, environmental protection, water management, storm management, obesity, substance abuse, homelessness, affordable housing, mental health, social services, gun control, abortion. Even smoking has stabilized at 12%. Something new needs to be stirred into this mix of stuttering difficulties, but what, and from where?

One first must ask, why? Any comprehensive answer to that question is beyond the scope of this web site and minds of its authors. But we can cast suspicion on certain forces. The ones just mentioned surely contribute—our problems are too many, they are growing increasingly complex, and some of the most difficult are also new. But other forces are also obstructive. The Federalist Papers name two. The very structure of our governments makes cross-branch and cross-party collaboration difficult; Hamilton observes prophetically that the same party will seldom dominate all three branches, leading to conflicts of interest and ideology that impede progress, intentionally. The combination of human limitations and persistent tensions of sorts make common, sufficient understanding of problems at the collective level difficult, or impossible for especially complex problems. The Papers hint at a third without admitting it: means and ends seldom jump from the womb with transparency and coherence. Means sometimes limit the range of ends that are possible; money is the obvious culprit. Ends may be too complex or opaque to summon a sensible set of means; homelessness and global warming nominate themselves from different ends of the political spectrum. And means and ends may intermingle or suffer exchange. Universal health care is both an end relative to our human needs and a means relative to improving health care generally.

Ideologies Again

Another issue nominates itself. The ideologies of our two parties have lost currency. As we tend to shape our political problems through our ideologies, dated ideologies date our problems and how we characterize them, making current descriptions and hence current remedies hard to develop. We are going to go through an inventory of the components of each. Both parties promote a strong defense, the rule of law, and the Constitution. While the parties bicker a bit over defense spending, defense itself may be the most common element in agreement between the two. However, neither party has a clue about what really happens at the Pentagon, as a matter of national security. The rule of law lies a bit in the eye of the beholder, the right holding to it more firmly than the left, whose history has often given the law an oppressive reading, often justified. However, the “law” itself has become so manifold and opaque and long-winded that no one, not even lawyers and judges, can grasp the entirety, and most ordinary citizens have never read a one. In Federalist 62 Madison warns: “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” No one in Washington seems to have read these lines or taken them seriously. As we suggest in many places on this site, the “Constitution” is not what either party means by the word, as neither considers its unwritten dimension, without which we do not have one, but about the content of which we only have puzzles as no scholar or legal arm of the government has provided us with a comprehensive, closed-end list of the unwritten clauses.

However, these observations mean no more than any ideology starts as a muddle. Muddles make for confusions within and misunderstandings in disputes, but they do not necessarily mean stark differences or irrelevance. From here the parties diverge explicitly, both in kind and relevance, each having descended into a kind of atavistic wilderness.

It is very hard to read what the right proclaims for itself from respectable sources—let us say the Heritage Foundation—onto today’s world. “Limited government” does not map to our system of governments spending more than 40% of the GDP with more than 185,000 pages of regulations at the federal level, many more cumulative at the state and local levels. The “free market” left this country and the world after World War I, not replaced exactly but transformed into a mix of regulations, massive redistribution, public control of things like health care and transportation, and market-based behaviors that make markets look much more like public/private partnerships or battles than laissez faire. Looked at from certain perspectives there is not that much difference between the free markets in China or Russia and the free market in the United States; both require heavy levels of government intervention to ensure what stability can be maximized if not insured and benefits spread broadly within the general population, something the “free market” clearly obstructs. “Family values” tend to mean old Protestant values, including no sex before marriage, the ultimate answer to abortion; once it escapes that cocoon, the phrase loses all claim to a unified meaning. “Individualism” harkens back to Andrew Jackson and certain readings of J.S. Mill and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but has taken on a kind of wild-west sense of late, stripped of its chain to “responsibility” and “respect” that conservatives of the 1950s clearly applied. Locating “individuality” within the presumption of a strong moral compass was entirely romantic anyway, but today’s conservatives, even those unwilling to abide our most recent Republican President, seem to be unwilling to insist that the price of individualism is responsibility and respect, using the term as a cavil against collectivism in any form instead. From this presumption comes the word “liberty,” meant as freedom from government coercion, that is, the general meaning given this word in the Federalist Papers. It is the most common word of self-ascription from the right. We suggest in our section in rights under Facts that we have as many as a hundred different meanings of the word, most of which are not freedom from coercion, but as surely count as part of “liberty.” Those members of the religious right add religious beliefs to the mix, the reason Ayn Rand lost favor with many, as she believed in abortion and reviled religions within her very conservative notion of “objectivism,” itself a conspicuous enemy of “collectivism.”

For its part, the left subscribes to strong government, not necessarily “unlimited,” but presuming that governments have responsibility to ensure “equality,” the left’s most common word of self-ascription now. However, the Democratic Party as now composed began in the Depression around “economic justice” reflective in labor union organization and government safety nets. “Equality” arose with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the women’s movement that took a more strident turn towards many more avenues of equal opportunity after the birth control pill. The Civil Rights Movement culminated in the Great Society Program, a suite of more than 230 laws passed between 1964 and 1968 that addressed many areas of discrimination and limited access based on race, gender, and over time sexual identity.

While these laws are on their face inimical to right wing ideology, all Republican Presidents after Johnson (a Democrat) have not only obliged the Great Society Program, but they have also added to it.

The left tends to use the word “justice” more than “liberty” even though they are intertwined. This follows from their shift to “equality” as the root political value. “Equality” implies a collective. “Justice” as a word has a long and checkered history. Plato (it seems to us) made a mistake when suggesting “justice” meant as a characteristics of an individual was analogous to “justice” meant as a characteristic of the city (Book II of the Republic); we have difficulty making any sense of “justice” absent a relation between an individual and a collective, existing solely in neither side of the relationship. “Liberty” by the same light only makes sense as a relationship rather than a property (see Hannah Arendt on the subject). If so, we are led to a point raised elsewhere in this section, that ideologies are necessarily partial characterizations of a set of political values, any full set necessarily leaking contradictions forced by the subject matter. The right wants “liberty” to mean the Lone Ranger or John Galt (Atlas Shrugged); the left wants “liberty” to mean all sheep have the right and capability to graze. Neither reflects the real world as it is and must be.

The left flirts with various degrees of “socialism,” a word with so many meanings that picking one would fail to capture the plurality meant within the party. However, government ownership of the means of production seems to be excluded, and planned economies are out. Any alternative is a marriage with some form of capitalism. Economists who puzzle over the wage gap seem to see only four forms of remediation or more equitable distribution of the economic bounty presuming a basically capitalist economy: higher taxation of the rich, unions, government-imposed wage scales, and forced redistribution in things like services, safety nets, public jobs, and direct subsidies. Only the last to these seems tractable within our present political environment.

We felt a digest of the two ideologies would help explain their growing irrelevance. Turning health care over to the free market (the idea advanced in a brief paper by our most recent Republican President) or universalizing Medicare (the idea advanced by Bernie Sanders and in a less strident sense from Elizabeth Warren)make no sense, yet are what the two sides seem to offer. Reversing the general decline of education performance will not be realized by promoting private schools (the right) or reducing requirements for school admissions in the name of equity (the left). The wage gap does not trouble the right (it should—eventually the economy declines for want of growing markets) but only a radical reversal of neoliberalism in some form will reverse the trend, with perils in other areas that even the left would find unwelcome. If we agree that immigration should be limited (not a given but what seems to be the view of both sides) but substantial enough to compensate for population loss given our low natural birth rate or attraction of talent in certain areas (a plus for both sides), neither ideology provides a workable metric for admissions nor means for denial. One has to say that the left can justify immigration for those fleeing civil wars and other severe forms of human rights violations whereas the right would not. Race relations are not what they were in 1960—the number of black Americans showing up in Republican clothing tells the tale—but Republicans are still deaf to the obvious legacies of discrimination after the Civil War while Democrats remain locked into a rhetoric that presumes the south of sixty or more years ago whose simple structure—true then, not true now—makes progress now much more difficult. Poverty has become so intransigent at current levels that neither party lifts the issue to the top page, the right to protest subsidies, the left to improve conditions with new ideas.

In truth, any ideology is necessarily unable to fully describe problems. The world is incoherent and complex; ideologies must be coherent and simple enough for millions to understand and march in unison. However, they serve a useful purpose of framing contexts for characterizations of problems that can then be tested in a deliberative marketplace. If ideologies have also lost relevance, we are in trouble. As we have given it above, the left may be less lost today than the right, but thinking of the world as if we never moved past the 1960s accounts for movements such as Occupy Wall Street, #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter showing so little for their efforts. A tale will be told by how well women in America reverse the recent repeal of 1973 Roe v Wade. So far, those against abortion appear to be winning as so many red states are installing laws making abortion a crime, even to the point of making next-day pills illegal. It does not take a lot of thinking to realize that marches on Washington will not do it this time. It is a complex street fight that includes keeping Democrats in power long enough to reshape the Supreme Court. It is a winnable fight; the people favor abortion with enough margin to eventually prevail. But the enemy is more like the three-headed Cerberus guarding Hell than a single knight guarding the Holy Grail.

Dysfunction in Washington

The Federalist Papers accurately predicted a certain level of dysfunction in Washington arising from the tensions within the system itself, particularly the separation and balance of powers. But the writers would be astonished at the level of disfunction today. Much has been brought on by the role money now plays in national elections since the widespread use of television as the principal medium of messaging. Members of the House, facing re-election every two years with election cycles lasting months, may spend 50% of their time raising campaign re-election money. Presidential races start now more than one-and-a-half years before election, with the President needed for the same cause far more often than his limited hours permit, but are felt to be necessary. Working half-time within a government with millions of pages of arcane laws and legislative packages with 2500-page proposals (commonplace now) does not make for effective consideration of new laws, much less the time to fashion them. Moreover, raising money has taken Congressmen and women away from Washington on weekends, depriving the community of legislators the natural amity that parties and other informal associations contributed to friendships and working relationships among those on opposite sides of the aisle. Party animosities are harder to maintain when you and your spouse are having dinner with the adversary on Saturday night, or you share little league duties with those opposing your views. Wonder ye not that it seems easier to conduct extensive investigations into individual behaviors, with no powers of discipline, than do actual legislative work today.

A second problem arises from the people themselves. At several places in the Federalist Papers the writers take aim at popular confusions and “party animosities” that take them away from reason and dispassionate evaluation of alternatives. The authors suggest such episodes eventually give way to proper considerations, but one suspects they do not believe it. History favors the former over the latter. The causes are probably more complex than this thumbnail suggests, but for our last few decades American voters have denied the federal establishment any harmony between Congress and the White House for long enough periods of time to develop longer term solutions to increasingly complex problems. As shown above, the last two-term President to make it through eight years with Congress of his party was Lyndon Johnson (whose term was only five years in fact, Kennedy occupying the office the first three years). Obama had but two years out of eight. Biden’s rush to spend money absent any real proposals for change certainly owns its origins to the likelihood of only having two years and a very slim Democratic majority in the Senate with which to work.

This force finds stark evidence in Gallup polls that show 48% of those polled in September of 2022 believe Republicans were handling our problems better than Democrats with only 37% honoring Democrats with such praise, whereas in 2007 the reverse was true, those polled giving Democrats 47% versus 30% to Bush and the Republicans. Given that Republicans have not had a President of that party in the White House who had experience and sense relative to governance since Bush, and Republicans with Democratic Presidents have done nothing more than say “NO” and threaten government shutdowns, the idea that Republicans are actually “handling” anything now or in the recent past staggers the imagination. We can only assume that the public, represented by theses votes, believes that the government is not handling the problems well, period. Such a conclusion fits with polls showing only 20% believe our government is doing a good job.

Dysfunction among our elected leaders does not spell dysfunction in all of Washington, DC. They occupy very few buildings of importance—the Capital, the two office buildings on either side, and the White House. A few other building have the smell of history—museums, monuments, the National Archive, the Library of Congress. The rest house people working in the many agencies created by the administrative and regulatory state, lawyers and other lobbyists, and the Supreme Court. The Pentagon, at 6.6 million square feet, occupies a massive space across the Potomac River in Arlington. Other buildings leak into Arlington and Bethesda. Viewed from some height above, Congress itself dwindles, as it has in practical importance. A sign in front of the National Archive reads “The Past is Prologue,” a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, uttered by a character hoping to talk his friend into assassinating his father. If we ignore the immediate irony, we can trace the conflicting trajectories implicit in the figure of speech; the past guides our sense of the future, but disruption is a necessary part of the journey, the old and the new inevitably joined in history’s march forward. Given the current complexity of power in Washington, we may expect the new from almost anywhere. As our Constitution and current circumstances have inflicted paralysis on our elected leaders relative to new legislation, we must expect the new to emerge from other institutions, or the people.

A Way Forward

We want to tell two stories. We plead with you to retain a vivid impression of our insistence on tensions as a corporate part of our political world. Both stories share our narrative space writ large with ones having exactly the opposite outcome or general sense. That does not gainsay the value of our stories here; it just denies them a privileged space in the chase for truth.

NPR and PBS

The story of NPR and PBS offers a clue (not an answer, just a clue) about how we might think about a way forward. The last bill of the Great Society Program (more than 200 bills from 1964 to 1968 that has shaped domestic policy ever since) created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) which created and funded National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) around 1970. Both were intended to fill gaps in private broadcasting services for those underserved by such services, depriving them of news, information, and entertainment that most Americans obtained from commercial radio and television stations. Both found the going tough. They could not attract enough real audiences (finding that the unserved had formed habits of mind or suffered impoverished English language skills that made becoming “served” very difficult by just providing the service) and CPB funds were insufficient to the task. So NPR formed alliances with existing college radio stations, created new local public radio and television stations with PBS, and over a period of some years changed their target audience to those already educated but hungry for better unbiased and deeper news resources. That audience could be petitioned for financial support, in the form of annual pledges and charitable contributions. Over a long and protracted (and very interesting) history NPR has found itself to be the most important news source in the country (between on-air and Pod Cast and Internet material now serving almost 100 million people, compared to Fox News at 2 million on a good night) but whose audience looks largely white, professional, and college educated. NPR is now no doubt the best general news lens we have into our problems with race and poverty (its sense of mission has not changed), but cannot be considered an integral part of the answer.

This sense of “living inside the problem” compared to “witnessing the problem” may be a distinction worth examining. One is often told, “unless you are black you cannot understand the life of black Americans today.” Let us suppose that is true. What are we to make of it? The surfeit of black Americans in television advertising today would suggest that we know we are there when all blacks Americans act like white Americans, supposing (against all odds) that “white Americans” have a common set of cultural practices and values. (One might surmise that two homeless men shooting up together on a street corner visible to all, one white, one black, have more in common with one another than either have with a reader of this site or Labron James.) Yet “diversity” is the first word of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) now dominating a structural attitude in American business and higher education. So-called “Identity Politics” popular for so many years attempted to privilege cultural and ethnic and racial diversity, this working in a way against American immigration history where “inclusion” meant adopting the language and habits of mind of the dominant race, which of course was much easier for the immigrant Irish, Italians, Germans, and Jews who were white.

If we open the lens of this question to the suite of problems listed a few paragraphs above, we will discover that “witnessing the problem” is the only possible stance for an alert, informed, and interested citizen. Indeed, a common sense of those “inside the problem” is one of victimization, with an implication of impotence relative to participating in remediation. Regarding race, not only are the problems caused by white people, white people are the only ones capable of solving the problem. That this is far from how Martin Luther King and Malcolm X among many others saw the problem does not gainsay the logic. It may be worth noting that, following the appropriation of the Civil Rights movement by the federal government in 1964 and 1965, King turned his last three years of life to achieving economic justice for Americans, regardless of race. To this day there are more white people in poverty than blacks or Hispanics; just the proportions are different. This group shares many common features that have led to poverty. It both makes more sense and may lead to more propitious outcomes if we take race out of the movement for economic justice.

Broadband

The original Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA—terrible title for abbreviations), originated in the House, allocated $100 billion to broadband, 80% of which went to construction of broadband infrastructure for those without any today. That figure was not enough to fully wire America, and pressure from incumbent carriers left the money free of a technology demand, even though anyone alive in the industry knows that the end game is fiber optic wire to every home and business in America. As of this writing we are not even halfway there from new builds made by incumbent carriers and various sources of subsidy (maybe 60 million homes passed out of 132 million in the country). Clearly aware of this infelicity, our Senate, with six-year terms giving them a superior window of wisdom (as Madison observes in Federalist 62), reduced the construction part to $42 billion, also without a technology demand, but with a more confusing set of constraints that made fiber optics less likely from a strict reading of the legislation. President Biden signed the Act on 15 November 2021. It was praised as an Act that will “end the digital divide,” nonsense on its face. It was referred to the Department of Commerce for administration, not the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which has handled most subsidy programs (along with the Department of Agriculture), which Department assigned the duties to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The FCC is an independent agency outside executive control. Whoever made the decision should get a commendation. The FCC has a long history of obedience to incumbent carriers, who only object to the suggestion because they do not get their way all the time, particularly with the commission chair appointed by a Democratic President. The NTIA jiggled with the requirements for submitting projects for subsidies such that any project utilizing fiber optics would have preference over any other regardless of costs. This is clear regulatory overreach, of the sort the Supreme Court recently struck down in 2022 West Virginia v EPA relative to greenhouse gas emissions (the Court held that the EPA could not order the closure of coal-fueled electric plants, a decision perhaps justified by the law but criminal otherwise and well within Court’s discretion to have ruled otherwise—check how John Marshall would have handled it). So far, the protests from cable and mobile carriers have not reversed the language.

Even if it holds up and the $42 billion goes largely to new fiber optic infrastructure passing homes that did not have broadband before, several serious problems remain besides millions of home still left out of broadband wiring. We should observe that every project document from the FCC on data communications opens with the insistence that broadband has become as essential a utility or public service as roads and electricity and clean water. Every dollar obtained by the FCC in a telephone tax for the purpose of insuring universal telephone service has gone to broadband, not telephone service, since 2010. But no government in the country has committed itself to treating broadband as an essential utility.

Broadband is not comparable to telephone service. When AT&T had a monopoly on telephone service, AT&T provided everything including the telephones, which were powered from an AT&T central office over the telephone wire, not a home electrical outlet. Residents just used it after mastering the complication of moving a dial or pushing a button with a number on it. Broadband is much more complicated, in technology and user demands. First, we have two essential broadband services—networks wired to homes and businesses, and mobile networks used now in stationary as well as mobile use but clearly required for mobile use. Instead of the finger as the essential instrument of use, broadband demands use of and knowledge of a plethora of user devices such as smartphones, iPads, laptops, desktops, streaming televisions, and a growing number of devices within the home comprising the Internet of Things. The network itself comprises the massive thing we call the Internet, which connects to local networks ending with the “last mile” to the home, which connects to a home network that is largely independent of the last mile network and may be owned (should be owned) by the homeowner. The Internet has been all fiber for two decades. But the last mile network, the subject of the IIJA, is a messy mixture of old telephone and cable television wiring that could be used for broadband with special modems, and fiber optic lines with 100,000 times the capacity of the best copper wiring.

Unlike telephone service and electricity, broadband networks face ever increasing data rates. Their exponential rise is sure to continue. At some point in the next decade the networks today using copper wiring will be obsolete relative to speed demands from 8K television, three-dimensional video conferencing needed for high-quality telemedicine among other things, file uploading when working at home, and things we have not considered because they have not been invented, but are as certain to arrive as the night turns to daylight. As this time arrives, at different time for different people, last mile network must be fiber, but as important, home networks must be capable of carrying the load. Home networks are the bottleneck now in many cases. They will dominate problems as fiber networks approach universal connections. But even the latter has difficulties. Under current concepts, anyone passed by a cable television network is considered served. In ten years that will not be true. But telephone carriers, Comcast, and Charter are currently loath to build new networks in areas with thin housing footprints. We estimate the number of such houses to exceed 20 million. They are the next digital divide, larger in number than our present digital divide. The situation has devolved into a tangled mess.

Local Initiatives

We observed elsewhere that federalism may have been the weakest link in the structure set up in 1789. It was required to get any kind of new constitution, but state independence brought us the Civil War and its residue in a nation divided between red and blue states, the Lost Cause living on in many colors. The division is on balance destructive, or at least counterproductive. We compensated as a country when the Depression made mincemeat of an unfettered free market system by centralizing corrective power and programs in Washington. World War II and its aftermath added more bulk to the move, this time of necessity. As we have noted many times, no Republican President has been able to reverse this dynamic even as they promise to in campaigns. All after Hoover added to the trend; the most recent one increased discretionary domestic spending by 30% before Covid. We have a level of insistent and hard-to-change centralized allocation of power that would have curled the hair even of poor Hamilton.

We think it is time to reverse the arrow, create more political power at local levels, not state or federal levels. Let them stew in their administrative states and legislative dysfunctionality. Let us restate the list of domestic problems opening this section: health care, education, poverty, race relations, homelessness, immigration, public transit, substance abuse, obesity, police profiling, gun violence, wage gap, abortion, election reform, environmental protection, water management, storm management, mental health, universal broadband, federal debt, affordable housing, violent crime, non-violent crime, domestic violence, and fiscal accountability. Many of these can be addressed locally, not necessarily in full, but enough to show progress. In our ACT section we outline possible initiatives in election reform, broadband, education, homelessness, police profiling, and fiscal accountability. But we conclude here with a pitch for public radio and television. Both are radically underfunded (that is to say, neither has an endowment that protects them from years such as the last one when economic circumstances shrink donner dollars). Local news sources from newspapers have shrunk, actually disappeared in small towns and suburbs of larger cities. The obvious entity to refill the gap is local NPR and PBS. Most try as best they can but are heavily constrained by financial limitations. Local campaigns for anything will require local communications and information distribution. Building out the best neutral resource for each will be a foundation stone for the future health of American politics.