Sunday, October 2, 2011

Who Should Influence Our Public Policy?

In theory, we'd all agree that our views on policy should reflect the input of wise, circumspect people, those wise men and women able to weigh the conventional wisdom du jour against enduring principles and reasoning.

Alas, in fact, public opinion and the resulting policies and whom we elect are heavily determined by less wise folks:
  • teachers and professors, people who have opted out of the real world. Compared with the pool of successful people in the real world, teachers and professors are more out-of-touch and less efficacious. Despite protestations to the contrary, there is some validity to the overgeneralization that those who can, do; those who can't, teach.
  • members of the media. This is another group with minimal real-world experience, whose opinions have been too heavily influenced by their theory- and ideology-rich but practicality-impoverished professors. Most journalists today, egged on by their new-style, ideology-driven journalism professors, believe they know how the world should be changed and thus have the right to forgo their near-sacred responsibility to present intelligent perspectives from across the full range of the ideological spectrum and, instead, manipulate the public into believing their own solutions are the correct ones. From Rachel Maddow to Rush Limbaugh, the New York Times' Bob Herbert to Fox News' Sean Hannity, these are people driven far more by ideology than by wise circumspection.
  • politicians. They are too driven by saying what will get them elected rather than by what's best. For example, for decades, the research has been unequivocal that Head Start yields no enduring benefit, but politicians continue to tout it because the public likes the concept, even though it ends up costing the taxpayers billions of dollars and wastes enormous toddler and parent time.
  • public intellectuals. I am less concerned about this category of influencers. After all, these primarily are thinkers. But the (liberal) media, by definition, creates public intellectuals. And it disproportionately anoints leftists--think Robert Reich, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Malcolm Gladwell. And to stay on the air, those public intellectuals must keep their messages liberal so as to please the media's gatekeepers. Another weakness: public intellectuals, by definition, spend a larger percentage of their work hours on promotion rather than creation than do private intellectuals.
Most troubling, public opinion on policy matters and political candidates may be most affected by:
  • people in the creative arts: filmmakers, actors, rock stars, etc. Of course, there are many exceptions, but people in the arts are likely to be longer on offbeat creativity than on intellectual rigor and discipline. They are less likely to be emotionally well-balanced and more likely to be in and out of rehab, literally or figuratively. Do you doubt that the parents of those in the creative arts are more likely than average to deem their kids "misfits", "poorly adjusted," or downright "weird?" Isn't it absurd that our public policy views are less likely to be affected by circumspect thinkers than by drug abusing, convicted of assault Sean Penn, punk rocker Bono (both pictured above,) Michael Moore whose career is spent criticizing capitalism while holding onto an eight-figure net worth he created via capitalism, five-times-married, violent-tempered James Cameron (Avatar, Rambo, The Terminator) comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, crooner Barbara Streisand, even the hosts of The View for God's sake?!
Who are these circumspect thinkers who, in relative anonymity, write and speak about what would be good for the world, not unduly swayed by fads, whether the environmentalist religion from the Left or Constitutional fundamentalism from the Right?

These Wise Men and Women are most likely to be found as key influencers but not as top dogs in corporations, nonprofits, think tanks, as consultants, and occasionally, academia. They are people who realize that to be The Leader is too likely to require ethical compromise, backstabbing, and other non-productive effort. These sages seek not power and acclaim but societal influence. They are the respected geniuses in or as consultants to organizations that generate brilliant ideas that incorporate a wide range of thoughtful input from across disciplines and ideologies.

Arguably the most important thing we could do to improve society is to develop our policy and political views heavily on the input of such Wise Men and Women instead of from escaped-from-the-real-world professors, media news readers, power-hungry politicians, air-time-addicted, ideology-driven pundits, and stoned-out rock stars.

Update: A commenter asked me how should we select our leaders? I have previously proposed two approaches that I believe are dramatically better than that status quo. I reproduce that here:

Reinventing How We Select Our Leaders

More and more money pours into election campaigns, heavily from special interests. That enables ever-more sophisticated Madison-Avenue types to concoct truth-obfuscating messaging to manipulate us. Today, nearly every sentence spoken by major politicians is dial focus-group tested.

As troubling, those special interests wouldn't be pouring billions into campaigns unless they were confident that it would result in politicians doing their bidding rather than what's best for us all. The following would ensure we elect far better and less-corrupted leaders:

  • All campaigns would be 100% publicly-funded. This has been proposed and rejected in the past as a denial of free speech. I believe that abridgment is far outweighed by the benefit to society.
  • All campaigns would be just two weeks long. That would control cost and only minimally reduce voter knowledge: Most voters have long forgotten what they heard months earlier about the candidates.
  • The campaigns would consist only of one or two broadcast debates. Those would be followed by a job simulation: running a meeting.
  • A neutral body such as C-Span or Consumers Union would post each major candidate's biographical highlights, voting record, and platform on key issues.

Such a system would reduce candidates' corruptibility while increasing the quality of information voters would have about the candidates. As important, better candidates would run, knowing they needn't run an endless, expensive, press-the-flesh, beholding-to-special-interests campaign.

Here is an even more radical approach to reinventing the way we choose our leaders: Our government officials would be selected, not by voting, but using passive criteria. For example, the Senate might consist of the most newly retired of the 10 largest nonprofits, a randomly selected CEO of the S&P Midcap 400, the Police Officer of America's Cop of the Year, the national Teacher of the Year, the most award-winning scientist under age 30, etc., plus random citizens.

Of course, both of those reinventions of our electoral system are subject to the criticism, "The incumbent politicians would never allow it--the foxes are guarding the hen house." I'd address that by working with the media to urge the electorate to support candidates that would vote for a fairer electoral system.

Another objection is that the U.S. Constitution requires our political leaders to be elected. While amending the Constitution is a huge undertaking, it has been done 27 times.


Anonymous said...


Did you neglect to address the issue all this hinges on: who will select these wise men and women?

When you talk about other people running your life, you can't escape politicians. Who will select these wise men and women? Self-interested politicians, of course.

Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D.

Marty Nemko said...

Indeed, I have written about this. Here's the link. Scroll down to page 8.