Monday, October 29, 2012

How We Select Our Leaders, Reinvented

Here is my next column in Mensa's The Intelligencer. 

The Life Well-Led
by Marty Nemko

How We Select Our Leaders, Reinvented

Is the the lying and deceptions of both presidential candidates disgusting you? How about that they and their SuperPACS will have spent $2 billion, heavily to pay for truth-obfuscating commercials, slick ads that clutter your e-mail and snail mailbox, not to mention telemarketing get-out-the-vote phone calls interrupting your dinner?

And the future bodes worse: The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision means that they can raise money without limits to manipulate us into voting for them.

Indeed, today, nearly every sentence spoken by major politicians is dial focus-group tested by Madison-Avenue-inspired "messaging teams."  Sometimes it seems we're not voting for the best candidate but for the best propaganda machine.

As troubling, those special interests wouldn't be pouring billions into campaigns unless they were confident it would make politicians do their bidding rather than what's best for the nation.

Perhaps worst of all, the need to run a four-year-long press-the-fat-cat's flesh campaign deters many of the most worthy people from running.

I believe that the following two approaches would ensure we elect better and less-corrupted leaders:

The Two-Week Publicly-Funded Campaign

  • All campaigns would be 100% publicly-funded. That 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: By the time most voters vote, they've forgotten what they heard  weeks ago.
  • 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, beholden-to-special-interests campaign.  

Alas, this problem does create a thorny problem: Who participates? The best solution I can come up with is that the Democrats, Republicans, Socialists/Greens, and Libertarians would each have the option to present a candidate.

An even more different approach: Don't Elect. Select.

In Don't Elect. Select, 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, a randomly selected Harvard visual/performing arts instructor, plus random citizens.  To ensure sufficient but not excessive continuity, the senators would every four years, anonymously rate each others' job performance, and the top 25% would retain their job for the next four years and the other 75% would be selected using the passive criteria mentioned in this paragraph.

The benefits of this system:

  • We’d have a more worthy and ideationally diverse group of leaders.
  • Because there would be no campaigns, our leaders would not be beholden to big donors.
  • The public would view such a leadership with more respect than they have for our elected candidates.
  • The absence of campaigns would save the public a fortune. Just our income tax form’s $3-per-person check-off box to political campaigns is projected to, over the next 10 years, cost the taxpayer $617 million[i].

Of course, one might argue that the incumbent politicians would never allow it. After all, the foxes are guarding the hen house. But I believe the media, equally eager to see better leaders, would urge the electorate to support candidates who would vote for a fairer selection system. And politicians, concerned about their place in history, would feel pressure to support the change. History would view politicians that voted themselves out of a job for the good of the nation as heroes, while no-voting politicians would be seen as self-serving obstructionists.

Another objection is that Don’t Elect. Select would require a Constitutional amendment, which is no easy task, but the Constitution has already been amended 27 times. I can’t think of a more worthy reason for number 28.

This is an adapted excerpt from from my just-published seventh book: What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America.


Anonymous said...

So...your idea is to replace professional politicians---with their warts and skeletons and all---with two classes of leaders: people successful in a very particular discipline and random people off the street.

And yet, if one reads your blog, you often disdain the very people you would have leading the country.

Not sure I follow that.

But what I am more interested in is how you think your new system is any better than the current one (since, after all, these are the same people who vote).

Marty Nemko said...

Our current system attracts too many lawyers as politicians. I don't believe that's good. So I believe that top people in a variety of fields should represent the majority of our legislatures, there is a lack of understanding of just-plain folks and especially the millions of people who truly have challenges to put ALL trust in the highly successful. So, my intuition is that a legislature consisting of perhaps 15% people selected at random, would be wise.

Anonymous said...

It's really hard to think of a scenario where there would be no corruption. For instance, in our current system, the president seems to have two constraints: 1) Super PACs, corporations, wealthy individuals, and other special interests donate a lot of money to ensure the status quo/changes that would benefit them 2) All policies are focus-group tested to have maximum appeal among chosen demographics. I'm not judging here...Your system sounds nice in may be better than what we have now...but it's not immune to corruption either. I just don't see how the most powerful people and organizations could ever be convinced to sit on their hands and let Congress be chosen according to passive criteria. It's not that I don't believe that people in general and even the media might support your system, I think they would, but would the Fortune 500? I'm also not convinced that you would even want to have your average Joe in Congress...people are remarkably biased, obstinate, and generally stupid. I think enlightened despotism is the way to go. But that is hit or miss...and the misses can be really, really awful.

Anonymous said...

While its a creative idea, I have some issues with it as well.

Only having two weeks to campaign provides a huge advantage to the incumbent. People need to get familiar with someone before they vote for him/her- two weeks is not enough of a courtship. Second, what counts as campaigning? If the incumbent gives a speech two months before the election, touting how well his education program is working at a public that against the rules? Would he be fined for it?

Also, neutral bodies like CSPAN already do post info about the candidates. But very few people access CSPAN for news. Would it be illegal to post info about the candidates if one wasn't the neutral news network(s)? You would be doing a huge disservice to major news networks, papers, internet sites who employ people based on these stories.

Marty Nemko said...

Good points, Anonymous. Broadly, I need to behind the aphorism, the perfect is the enemy of the good. While there are flaws in my proposal, I believe they are less damaging to the country than the flaws in the status quo. My responses to your specific concerns:

1. I do not believe people will "get to know" candidates much better after week two, certainly not enough to justify the cost, the decrement in the probability of good people running that would accrue, etc.

2. Yes, there will be "cheating"---various sorts of quasi-campaigning outside the two weeks. But those could not receive any campaign funding, so their impact would be relatively small.

3. Posting of their records would be everywhere. The neutral body would merely be the aggregator of the information. The networks, the print media, etc., could reproduce it.

Anonymous said...

Trying to look as dispassionately at both Obama and Romney, it seems Romney was citing facts (high unemployment, $16 trillion deficit, the budget busting Obamacare, the Benghazi debacle) as reasons why Obama shouldn't be re-elected, while Obama's only counter argument was that Romney is an evil capitalist pig. The current system would work more efficiently if candidates just kept to the facts rather than attempt to demonize the other guy.


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