Monday, September 10, 2012

Can Engineers Fix the Political System?

From now until early November, U. S. citizens will be bombarded by more political ads than most people care to hear.  While I won’t take sides today, I sense a general opinion that the U. S. Congress in particular, and perhaps the whole range of U. S. political systems in general, is severely impaired if not quite broken down.  And during an election year, it’s more noticeable than ever.

Support for this sense comes from a book by economist Arnold Kling, who thinks the U. S. has outgrown a political system that may have worked fine when the country was much smaller, but has now become antiquated and needs serious overhauling.  His basic point is that while the knowledge needed to govern the country is increasingly diffused by means of the Internet and other advanced technologies, the present political system tends to concentrate power in the hands of a few hundred elites:  the President and his executive-branch heads, members of Congress, quasi-independent bureaucrats such as the Federal Reserve Board, and leaders of large private corporations.  This leads at best to a kind of paralysis in which the elites do things that basically feather their own nests, while the great mass of people have little voice or influence on what the elites choose to do to them (I could have written “for them” instead of “to them” but sometimes it’s hard to tell which preposition is more appropriate).

Rather than just complain, Kling proposes some solutions, and says some very nice things about engineers in the process.  He cites the way that the Internet’s technical rules are arrived at as a good example of “just-in-time government.”  Although the process is somewhat different now, for many years the Internet was governed by a series of ad-hoc Internet Engineering Task Forces (IETFs).  A typical task force would be called together by an engineer who thought there was a problem that needed fixing.  Other engineers interested in the problem would volunteer their time to form a working group which would have meetings (either virtual or face-to-face) to discuss alternatives and agree on a plan of action.  Eventually the solution would be agreed upon and circulated in the form of a final draft.  If nobody objected strenuously within a certain time, the draft became Internet “law.”  Though Kling doesn’t mention it, many technical standards such as the ones about how wireless devices interact (you may have heard of IEEE 802.11, which is one such standard for local area networks) are arrived at by essentially the same kind of task-force mechanisms.

Kling points out that in contrast to well-paid civil servants, volunteers do not have an incentive to keep their problem alive so as to justify their working on it indefinitely.  They have their own jobs they’d like to get back to, and fixing the problem expeditiously is more appealing than prolonging it.  On the other hand, if you are the government-paid Assistant Sub-Executive Secretary of the Department of Circumlocution or something, you may be tempted to say that “further study is needed” no matter what problem comes up.

Kling uses IETFs as an example of ways that societies can govern themselves without the need for a superstructure of permanently empowered individuals whose terms in office last for many years.  He has other ideas as well that would make government run more like a competitive business and allow individuals to choose which regulatory and tax regime they would like to live under, without the disagreeable necessity of moving from one place to another physically.

Kling makes a good point about the excessive concentration of power with the following example.  If you divide the total budget of $4.3 billion for Montgomery County, Maryland by the number of County Council members, the spending per legislator is an astonishing $500 million.  There are few CEOs of private companies who can boast of controlling so much cash.  By contrast, Switzerland is divided into 26 “cantons” with between about 50 to 100 legislators in each canton.  The highest per-legislator spending level in Switzerland—a nation, not a county—is $76 million.  And Switzerland spends more per person on its relatively small population than the U. S. does.  When the U. S. was smaller, the spending per legislator was closer to what Switzerland’s is today, and it was probably easier for an average citizen to get the attention of a legislator, simply because there weren’t as many citizens then as there are today.  We would need upwards of a thousand congressmen in Congress today in order to move substantially closer to Switzerland’s situation.

And that brings up the main problem with all these nice ideas: as with many wide-ranging proposals to remake the political system, the problem is how to get there from here.  It’s unlikely that anyone in Washington is going to look kindly on the idea that we should have ten or a hundred many times as legislators as we do now.  And the alternative, to move power from Washington back to the individual states, is also one that has a rough time getting heard, although there are slight signs that the U. S. Supreme Court is thinking it might be time to move that way.

In the near term, the best we average citizens can do is to vote for people who might possibly be inclined to look beyond their own interests and do what is right for the city, state, or nation, regardless of whether it means a decrease in his or her own power.  Such people are increasingly rare, but if you find one, I encourage you to vote for them, while you still have the opportunity.

Sources: Arnold Kling’s Unchecked and Unbalanced:  How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy  was published by Bowman & Littlefield (Lanham, MD) in 2010.

Note to Podcast Enthusiasts:  I was recently interviewed by Jeffrey Shelton and Chris Gammell of “Engineering Commons,” a podcast they put together weekly.  The resulting podcast was posted Sept. 6 and if you want to hear your scribe opinionate on a wide range of ethics-related matters, you can download it at

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