A New Kind of Problem Solving

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s third highlighted feature of New Localism in their book The New Localism is that it, “reflects a commitment to a new kind of problem solving that is distinct from the uniformity of policymaking.”  American cities and metropolitan regions are leaders in innovation, diffusion, and development in the United States. The networks formed between university researchers, students, business and industry, government agencies, and local non/not-for-profits or charities help new research translate into real-world applications and eventually into new innovations. Crucially, this is not just true of new technological innovations. In medicine, material science, and communications technology we see new devices entering the market to change the ways we live, but outside these areas we are also seeing cities and metropolitan regions innovate thanks to dynamic networks and united stakeholders. New Localism is helping to drive new forms of governance, new forms of funding for local projects, and even new ways of engaging communities.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “It adapts the risk-taking and attitude of individual entrepreneurs and investors to the collective sphere. It is experimental and tolerant of failure. It is the twenty-first century embodiment of Franklin Roosevelt’s words in his famous 1932 speech: It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another, but by all means, try something.”

 

Government is frequently criticized for being slow and unresponsive. Rules and regulations take over, and creativity, customer service, and improvements seem to disappear. Without a profit motive, it is hard to see why governments should feel a pressure to move quickly and why they should feel a pressure to be highly responsive to the public. Free markets on the other hand (and especially tech start-ups), seem to operate on a model of, “move fast and break things.” They feel pressured to always up the design and innovate, although they also face a pressure to provide gimmicks and overstate their level of innovation and fast-breakiness.  New Localism helps by finding a way to establish more of a common ground between these two extremes.

 

New forms of social and civic organization can help create quasi-governmental structures that provide the regulation and oversight necessary to protect citizens, but businesses can find profit and reward from working closely with those structures to innovate in a way that actually solves the local problem. Funding from associations and foundations help reduce the risk that government agencies would otherwise face, again providing a new avenue to help encourage innovation and development while avoiding typical roadblocks in a standard policy making process. These new ways to solve problems are a direct result of new networks and local action to address challenges in a cohesive manner.

The Location of Power

Power in the United States, at least the power to actually get things done and make changes, is transforming. National politics exist at such a polarized level that bipartisan lawmaking and any action in general is almost impossible. As a result, political decision making and dynamic policy changes are occurring at a different level of governance, the hyper-local level. From my vantage point, state governments are muddling through as normal, with some big legislation passing here and there in some states, but simultaneously a lot of state level legislation seems to me to symbolic and broad, and often hung up in courts.

 

The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak explores how and why power in American public policy is shifting to the city, municipality, and metropolitan arenas. Dynamic changes and transformations are not occurring nationally, are not occurring in all states, and are not occurring in all counties. Some regions of the United States are growing, booming, and adapting, while others seem stagnant and stuck.

 

The authors write, “The location of power is shifting as a result of profound demographic, economic, and social forces. Power is drifting downward from the nation-state to cities and metropolitan communities, horizontally from government to networks of public, private, and civic actors, and globally along transnational circuits of capital, trade, and innovation.”

 

The thing about city governments and metropolitan communities is that they can act with a sense of informality that large national governments and bureaucracies cannot. They can be quicker to respond and more targeted with their actions. We are coming out of a period in American history where policies and actions moved upward to the Federal government. Lobbyists moved from small town capitals across the nation to Washington DC, to be closer to the big decision makers. As congress has fallen into gridlock, local governments have taken up action to innovate and re-imagine their futures. New actors come into play at local levels, and connections in both public and private organizations are driving the changes of governance, economies, and communities.

 

It is important that we embrace these changes, but recognize the potential for inequality with these changes. We have to find ways to embrace the new drivers of innovation, knowledge, and development while equitably ensuring that our communities are strengthened and not fractured from this new localism. Metropolitan areas are booming, but they must not become exploitative or this shift in power can become dangerous and further the divisions in our country. In order for new localism to be sustainable, it must also become equitable to bridge the gaps we see in our current politics.

Charitable Advertisements

Charitable behavior says something about us. It is a way for us to advertise ourselves to the world in a discrete manner, so that everyone can see us and take away a message without us having to tell each person something about ourselves in a direct manner. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The most obvious thing we advertise is wealth, or in the case of volunteer work, spare time.”

It seems strange that we would use charity in this way. I hear arguments from time to time that we should just have higher taxes and use government systems and structures to address social problems. As a change to the current system, we could build more government agencies and provide more support for the kinds of programs and functions that we currently ask non-profits and charities to assist with. A frequent argument against this idea is that it would be inefficient and we couldn’t rely on government to consistently address the kinds of problems that charities and non-profits pop up to address. An argument that I don’t hear very often, but that I think plays a role, is that we would not be able to signal our generosity and extra wealth if we just expanded taxes and the role of government.

“In effect, charitable behavior says to our audiences, I have more resources than I need to survive; I can give them away without worry,” continue Simler and Hanson. The fact that our donations are often public and are often directed to causes that make us feel warm and fuzzy are evidence that we are not really using our donations to try to solve real problems. Asking the government to step in and play a bigger role might really address the problems that are out there, but it wouldn’t give us the warm fuzzy feeling we are looking for, and wouldn’t allow us to advertise to others about how charitable we are. This is why it is so hard to say no to people soliciting donations at grocery stores. We don’t know anything about the charitable cause they are asking us to support, but if we don’t take the chance to advertise how generous we are, we inadvertently advertise how inconsiderate we might be, or how little resources we have to spare. These little charitable behaviors end up being more about ourselves than about the good we are trying to do.

What Does “The People” Mean?

“We the people” is a powerful phrase in the United States. It conjures images of democracy, freedom, revolution, and the power to push back against illiberal governments and disinterested elites. The phrase has been a rallying cry in movies for civic motivation, has been a symbol in politics for grassroots movements, and occupies and idyllic vision of governance to many Americans.

 

The challenge, however, is that “the people” is not a very clear idea or concept. It is ambiguous, without real direction, and is not always used in all encompassing ways. The idea of a government governed by “We the people” is great in theory, but at the end of the day decisions need to be made and a final direction must be chosen. “We the people” is not actually a great approach to decision making when you get to the end of the line. Building a government based on “We the people” may seem natural to us today, but looking deeper reveals the challenges of setting up a government based on the public will that our founding fathers encountered after the revolutionary war. Joseph Ellis captures these challenges in his book The Quartet when he wrote about James Madison’s perceptions of the new direction he wanted the nation to go:

 

“Experience during and after the war had demonstrated beyond any doubt that romantic descriptions of “the people” were delusional fabrications, just as far-fetched as the divine right of kings.”

 

Ellis also quotes Jefferson and his doubts about the feasibility of a government built on popular will and fully democratic values, “a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom, that the first secretion from them is usually crude and heterogeneous.”

 

“We the people” is absolutely the spirit of government that we should embrace in the United States, but I think it is important to also be nuanced in how we think about the actual decisions that government must make. Popular will can be hard to gauge and impossible to decipher. When popular will does align, we must also be fearful of a tyrannical majority. Ultimately, “We the people” must translate into active participation in government that works to better understand, connect, and unify the American people. If “We the people” does not live up to this standard, it risks devolution into demagoguery and minority out-casting.

Jefferson on the Constitution

Joseph Ellis, in his book The Quartet argues that many of our founding fathers who actively participated in bringing us our constitution were not focused on creating an ever binding document that would hold in place the nation’s laws forever. They sought, Ellis argues, to build a constitution that would serve as a guiding document for the political thought and ideals of the time. They understood that the Constitution would have to change, and while thy hoped that it would be endearing enough to be well respected and to not be scrapped within ten years, they did not believe the Constitution to be beyond the scope of political discussion and change.

 

This sentiment is capture by Thomas Jefferson, who was not active in the process of writing the constitution and developing its ideas since he was in France during the Constitutional Convention of 1787:

 

“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country…. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered…institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.”

 

In my mind, the most clear modern example of what Jefferson described in the quote above is the debate in our country over the Second Amendment. In 1787 our founding fathers found it important enough for the nation to be able to be build a militia when needed and for citizens to be able to bear arms to for their protection from tyrannical governments both internal and external to the United States. But the firearms of the Revolution were unlike the weapons of today’s world. The original intent doctrine suggests that we should not limit people’s ability to own and use firearms. This seems very clear with the inclusion of the the Second Amendment, but it also feels to me, that we are forcing the nation to wear its boyhood jacket when we force the modern problems with guns into the framework of the Second Amendment. It is clear that the founding fathers did not write the Second Amendment with handguns in mind. The guns of the time were bulky, slow to reload, and inaccurate. A modern handgun is easily concealable, can be fired rapidly, and is deadly accurate.

 

Jefferson, it appears based on this quote from the end of his life, would argue that the Second Amendment needed to change, that there was not a superhuman view of firearms and democratic preservation written into the Constitution to which we should affix ourselves today. The technology of the world has advanced in unpredictable ways since 1787, and Jefferson would argue that our institutions for governing the nation should change as well.

The Bill of Rights, Factions, and the Power of the Government

One of the debates that took place before the 1788 ratification of our Constitution was whether or not the constitution should include a Bill of Rights, guarantees of freedoms that limit the power of government over the states and citizens. As written, Madison thought the Constitution was complete, and did not see the need for a Bill of Rights. The majority of delegates to the Constitution Convention, however, approved of amendments to the Constitution, and in the end, our founders added 10 amendments to create the Bill of Rights we know today.

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis describes Madison’s thoughts regarding the Bill of Rights, an area where Madison and his political mentor, Thomas Jefferson differed in their opinions. Madison believed that a Bill of Rights would not be effective in stopping government from overstepping its authority, and he felt the amendments to be irrelevant. Ellis wrote the following about Madison:

“Jefferson’s problem, as Madison saw it, was that he believed that the primary threat to personal rights came from government. That might be true in Europe, “but in our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the community.” So the real threat came “from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.”

This is consistent with Madison’s thoughts as written in the Federalist Papers #10 and #51, in which Madison wrote about the dangers of factions and majoritarian groups of citizens. Madison did not see power as flowing from the government and did not see our political rights and stemming from government. He was developing a constitution and a framework of governance where “the people,” as ambiguous as the term is, held authority and power and a written bill of rights, he argued, was not sufficient to dissuade a majority of citizens from violating the rights of others. His suggestion was not to tie the hands of government with a bill of rights, but instead to ensure that power was divided among many factions so that a tyrannical few could not dominate the interests of the many.

What I find interesting here is that Madison is in effect arguing for what we today would call identity politics. The most basic definition of politics is “who gets what and when?” We will always lack the resources to make sure that everyone’s self interest and desires are entirely fulfilled, and some resources, such as status and prestige, cannot be evenly separated among men, women, and differing groups. Politics is about how we decide to distribute what we have, and it is inherently unequal and identity based. The term identity politics now refers to the distribution of resources based entirely on individual characteristics of certain groups rather than on the good of the majority, but as Madison may argue, operating on the basis of the good of the whole is impractical because you cannot give the whole the same opinion, and what you instead have is a tyrannical majority dominating the few. A bill of rights, paper barriers to liberty, are easily ignored when a powerful majority can silence the voice of a minority. Giving minorities more power and influence is a Madisonian idea that was formed in the founding documents of the nation, well before our current tussle of identity politics.

The Non-Transparent Constitutional Convention

In his book, Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch argues that some of the changes we have made to the political system of the Untied States in the last several years have been self-defeating in regards to the functioning, efficiency, and effectiveness of our government. In particular, our ever expanding pursuit of transparency and the degree to which everything is recorded and open has made real debate with tough decisions more challenging. It is hard to have a debate with compromises where unpopular policies are discussed and worked through and more successful and effective legislation is created.

 

I was reminded of this idea from Rauch while reading Joseph Ellis’ book The Quartet. Our nation was originally founded under the Articles of Confederation, which did not pull our states together in a meaningful way to unify and promote our national interests. Replacing the Articles, however, was not a simple task and drafting a new Constitution was challenging. In many ways, the success of the new Constitution required our founding fathers to cut against many of the values they hoped the Constitution would establish for all citizens. Ellis describes it this way, “Ironically, to the extent that the delegates at Philadelphia succeeded, their success was dependent on violating all of our contemporary convictions about transparency and diversity, which is one reason why their success could never be duplicated in our time.”

 

Efforts to refine government and open up governance all start from a positive point of view, the belief that sunshine will act as a disinfectant, ridding politics of corruption and illegitimate deal making. The reality however, is that transparency and other reforms to make politics more open and clear can act as sand in the gears of our political machinery. Some debates require closed doors and safe spaces for compromises to be worked out. Getting legislators to organize together requires massive efforts of coordination and often requires conversations that take place outside of the spotlight as legislators and the people they represent have conflicting views and interests. It is worth reflecting on our ever growing pursuit of open democracy and remembering that our nation required what appeared to be non-democratic and non-transparent rules to get its start in the first place.

A Shift in Sovereignty

In my last post I wrote about the complexities of sovereignty, of who has the supreme power and authority in a given polity and where that authority comes from. The Revolutionary War in the United States ushered in a new government with independent states, each sovereign within their own territory, held together by a loosely constructed national government. Power and authority held within the state was derived from the citizens of the state who had come together to forge new lives in America.

 

This arrangement, however, was not politically stable and did not hold the states together in a way that protected the interests of each state and of each citizen within each state. A new government was needed to cement the bonds between the states, and the new government required a re-imagining of sovereignty. Today it is obvious that the Federal Government is sovereign over the state governments. It is clear to us that our elected officials represent us and receive their power with the consent of our votes, but at the time of the American Revolution and at the time of the writing of our Constitution, this was not obvious. Joseph Ellis describes the shift in sovereignty in his book The Quartet by writing:

 

“Sovereignty had shifted from a monarchy claiming to derive its authority from God to a legislature claiming to derive its authority from ‘the people.’ Political power flowed not downward from the heavens but upward from the citizenry. Indeed, this was the fundamental change that had made the war for independence a revolution.”

 

This view of power and authority was radically different from a view of a monarch ordained by God to lead a people. There were many questions that were addressed in the constitution to answer questions about how power and authority would be transmitted through the people to the governing authorities of the nation, and at the time these were new ideas that required a shift in thinking about both power and governance. Sovereignty now had a new basis for legitimacy, and it was bottom up, growing from the public and not top down from a ruler.

Sovereignty

Sovereignty is a difficult concept, even though it seems pretty easy and strait-forward. A quick Google definition of sovereignty is “supreme power or authority,” but what this means in the real world is more muddy than what the Google definition suggests. From the quick definition one might think of the Supreme Court and suggest that the court is the supreme power and authority in the United States, but with our separation of powers, the Supreme Court’s authority is somewhat limited and is not all encompassing. The Supreme Court is a good example of the complexity of sovereignty and the challenges of truly understanding how power and authority interact within a society and government.

 

The most challenging question about sovereignty and authority is the question of where authority comes from. The American Revolution was fueled by the idea that sovereignty rested within the individual states, whose constitutions governed the relationship between their populations and their ruling authorities. Today, sovereignty rests far more with the federal government rather than with the states. At the time of the writing of our constitution, a fundamental shift in sovereignty was taking place between the federal government and the states. Joseph Ellis captures this conflict in his book The Quartet describing the way that Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay bent the idea of sovereignty to give rise to the sovereign federal government that we eventually came to understand today.

 

“The knotty question of sovereignty – did it reside in the states or in the federal government?-was the central issue requiring a clear resolution. If the federal veto proved impossible, an alternative argument, an artful finesse, might be that sovereignty was located in “the people,” a somewhat ambiguous formulation that bent the shape of the new constitution in a national direction.”

 

Ellis explains the way that our national focus on the individual, the liberties of the individual, and the notions of sovereignty came together to create a new idea of how governments and individuals should relate to each other. Sovereignty was believed to rest with the people, and people had natural human rights and authority which they could then divest in the government. This is not an obvious thought and idea, and even today, we have retreated from this view. We often now see the Federal Government as the ultimate authority of the land, not the people. Our rights and freedoms flow from the Federal Government which decides what we can and cannot do and which guarantees us certain rights in writing. Power and authority seem like they are strait-forward concepts, but Ellis’s writing on sovereignty at the nation’s founding and our complex shifting views of sovereignty demonstrate that it is more complex than it first appears.

Conflicting Views of the Continental Army

The American Founding Fathers and the citizens of the American Colonies had a lot of conflicting views about government and governance at the time of the American Revolution. Post war, the states existed as effectively autonomous sovereign nations tied together by shared yet distinct histories. During the war, the citizens needed an army capable of defeating the British, but also feared the power that a strong standing army would hold. Throughout the revolution and post-war period, the states understood that they would need to pay the army and pay for the support they received, but no one wanted to have a central authority collect monies to pay the soldiers and mercenaries who fought against the British. Joseph Ellis captures the conflict in his book The Quartet and writes,

 

“The unspoken and unattractive truth was that the marginal status of the Continental Army was reassuring for the vast majority of Americans, since a robust and professional army on the British model contradict the very values it was supposedly fighting for. It had to be just strong enough to win the war, or perhaps more accurately not lose it, but not so strong as to threaten the republican goals the war was ultimately about.”

 

The Continental Army at points was barely holding together with minimal supplies and food. Robert Morris, a private citizen, stepped in and paid the soldiers and army himself, from his own private funds, and was viewed as a war profiteer. The Colonies sought independence, but fears of a strong standing army and a history of abuses by a central authority created fear among the colonies that hampered their efforts to build a robust force to bring them the independence they desired.

 

The conflict within the mindset of the colonies is a phenomenon we still see happening within American politics today. Foreign policy and healthcare are two arenas where similar conflicts still emerge and are quite visible. We want stability, positive outcomes, and assurances that we will not be bothered with inconveniences, but we are barely willing to pay for it. We expect our government to be farsighted and to operate perfectly, but we refuse to fund it fully and look for any abuse of power and any misuse of money as an example of why we cannot trust and cannot fully fund our government. Healthcare eats an enormous amount of total spending (governmental, private, and individual) in our country, but we don’t seem to actually work toward the things that make us healthier. The government spends less that 1% of total budget on foreign affairs, but people assume we spend much more. In both of these areas, spending more directly to assist health and foreign aid would reduce the problems that arise later on and become our excuses and examples of why we cannot trust government. From our founding through today it seems that our distrust of government has been less in line with reality, and more in line with our fears and the stories we tell ourselves about what we need and what values we should try to live up to as a nation.