Sunday, September 12, 2010

Making the Biggest Difference

I attended a barbecue fundraiser for Tom Torlakson, who's running for California State Superintendent of Public Instruction. It reminded me of the absurdity of how we select our leaders. To think, he's traipsing around the state day after day, month after month, pressing the flesh and giving a no-one-could-disagree speech at Lions crab feeds, union hall pancake breakfasts, and luncheons at fat cats' homes.

Such a process deters the best people from running and means that, once elected, they're beholding to special interests. And do we really know how good an elected official he'll be compared with his opponents?

That made me flash back on a discussion I had 35 years ago with my doctoral advisor, Michael Scriven. We agreed that among the most beneficial things to improve America would be to require political campaigns to be 100% public-funded and just two weeks long, consisting only of televised debates and non-partisan-created online and printed lists of the candidates' voting records and stances on key issues. Then we both went back to our three-ring-circus lives and, of course, nothing changed.

Even powerful senators like John McCain and Russ Feingold, who spent a few years trying to get meaningful campaign reform, produced little. Today, for example, the superrich like Meg Whitman, can buy the California gubernatorial election.

I am pleased with the way my life has turned out: a busy career counselor, talk show host, writer, and consultant. Not bad. I make a difference while making a good living. That's more than most people get.

But I wonder if I would have made a far greater contribution if I had, after that conversation with my advisor, decided to fully devote my entire life to creating the campaign reform I outlined above. The first years would no doubt mainly be spent learning, building relationships, and making mistakes. But today, 35 years later, it is not inconceivable that I could have brought about real campaign reform. If so, the country, indeed the world, would be far better. If not, I believe I would have at least made progress and certainly lived a life of admirable integrity.

The lesson here: Ask yourself if you'd be wise to pick the biggest, make-a-difference goal that excites you and focus, obsessively, for the rest of your life if necessary, on its achievement.


Seraphim said...

I really like your main point here: focus on where you can really make a difference. Great stuff!

But regarding campaign finance reform -- be careful what you ask for. In Arizona, we have a form of public campaign finance called the "Clean Elections" program. Candidates can get $20,000 or more for state and local elections. It requires that the candidates obtain a number of $5 donations. If they collect enough, they qualify for the public funding.

It's a lot easier to collect $5 donations than it is to raise large amounts of money. The problem is, it's TOO easy. Over the years, this has led to more extreme politics -- it's easier for the extreme candidates on both sides to get real money for their campaigns. If they had to raise the money themselves, they wouldn't have a chance to raise that kind of money. Our state and local politics tend to be much more polarized as a result.

See this blog post for more thoughts on the topic.

Marty Nemko said...

Very interesting, Seraphim. Thank you for the fine comment.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I had a similar discussion to this only yesterday. I (foolishly) admitted to a friend that I didn't vote in the last election. (Boy did THAT get a reaction.) After years of being politically active and waving my pom poms on the state capital steps I've begun to seriously question the whole political process and have disengaged quite a bit.
No longer am I out to change the work or sword fight with my so-called opponents. My goals have shrunk considerably....I want to love and serve my family and my neighbors. It's a goal I can get my mind around.
So yeah, I've become jaded. But I'm also not as pissed off as I used to be. ;)

Anonymous said...

Motherlode: on voting: depending on how you feel about your work, one take on it can be:

you vote, every day, with your own body and where you choose to place it, with your own mind, and how you choose to use it. Instead of assigning responsibility to other people to do things, you accept responsibility and saw to it that something got done. (I'm paraphrasing Utah Phillips paraphrasing Ammon Hennacy here.)

You need to be a very firm believer in the value of at least some of your work if you're going to be willing to argue against the ThouShaltVote crowd.

I've never voted for a major party in a Federal election, and for many years have abstained from voting altogether.

Lately, I'm not as pleased with the value of my work. I may start voting again, since I don't feel that I'm doing enough on my own for the time being. If the water bonds were on the ballot this fall, I'd register to vote them down.